TJ Reid could be walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand to collect that priceless trophy, the MacCarthy Cup
It is not the All-Ireland senior hurling final many had expected, but with two of the greatest rivals in the history of Gaelic games involved, it is not one anyone will want to miss.
Croke Park will be rocking on Sunday when Kilkenny and Tipperary, neither of whom have a title to their name this season, will battle it out for that most precious of prizes, the MacCarthy Cup.
It is a dearly held trophy, one that was claimed a record 36 times by Kilkenny and 27 times by Tipp, who are third in the Roll of Honour. Cork stand between them with 30.
Powerful All-Ireland champions of 2018, Limerick, were the hot tip to be crowned kings again this season.
Their strong, driving hurling throughout the season, when they won the National League and Munster championship, made them the obvious choice but they were cut down by the Cats in the semi-final.
In the second semi-final Tipperary toppled Wexford, the Leinster champions, in sensational style, coming from five points behind when a man down to claim a remarkable victory.
The brilliance of the fare in those semis has rocketed expectations about Sunday’s clash, which has the potential to be one of the greatest finals ever as hurling and players reach new levels of performance.
Yet, so, so easily a different pairing could have been heading to Croke Park. A mere one point was the gap in the first semi (Kilkenny 1-21 to 2-17) and two in the second one (Tipperary 1-28 to 3-20).
Tipp and Kilkenny made the best of the second chance in the championship. They shrugged off the disappointment of losing the provincial finals and the performances they dug out in the All-Ireland semi-finals were hard to credit.
On the one hand you had Tipperary’s remarkable recovery. Their manager, Liam Sheedy, described that winning effort as “unbelievable” and the work of players driven totally by self desire to be the absolute best they can be.
On the other hand Kilkenny and Limerick, who were slow out of the blocks, produced a game of such intensity and incident for the 75 throbbing minutes it ran that fans were even left tired and drained afterwards.
Hurling is not a game that can be controlled in terms of pace or tempo, like, for instance, rugby or soccer can by a gifted or influential playmaker.
Hurling is an instinctive game that can only be played at full pace and intensity from start to finish.
The players of today are so finely tuned in terms of fitness and touch they are producing new levels of performance, and the possibility is that this will continue into the future.
Example, last year’s entire championship. It was wonderful. Example, the two most recent semi-finals.
The last time the counties met in the final was 2016 when Tipp’s game plan of withdrawing players deep and opening acres of space in front of the Kilkenny goal was decisive. Their captain and star attacker, Seamus Callanan, rifled 0-13 that afternoon as Tipp triumphed by 2-29 to 2-20.
Callanan is still a potential destroyer - he has scored a goal in seven consecutive games - in a team that is likely to feature 13 of the 2016 players. The new arrivals are goalie Brian Hogan and corner-back, Barry Heffernan.
Crucially, Tipp injected a lot of new blood into the ranks in the semi-final through young subs Willie Connors, Ger Browne, Mark Kehoe, Alan Flynn and Jake Morris.
All five featured in the scoring (0-1 each) by the way, which was a rich return from the bench, and especially so in such a tight match. Changing a third of your team and coming up with such a take reflects well on Sheedy’s trust in his panel.
Interesting to note that Tipp have had 18 scorers in this championship, with Callanan (7-16) and Jason Forde (2-58) leading the way.
Their other long servers Padraic, Ronan and Brendan Maher - the half-back trio - John O’Dwyer, John and Noel McGrath, James Barry and so on are well versed in what it takes to survive and be winners at the highest level.
There was criticism earlier in the season that the group had been on the road a long time and might lack pace, but that didn’t show in a semi in which Wexford tested with a very, very high energy game.
Apart from the blow out against Limerick in the Munster final, Tipperary have been flying.
Remember, they too have beaten Limerick in the championship, in a second round tie, which was a significant pointed to their serious potential.
Kilkenny’s season could be described as a slow burn affair.
They were so-so against Dublin in the opening round, when they needed to reshape their team at the break to take the sting out of the visitors charge.
The main structure of the defence was largely sorted that day, after Padraig Walsh was moved to No. 6 and Huw Lawlor to No. 3. Later the recall of Joey Holden, after a super season with Ballyhale Shamrocks in the club championship, improved things further.
There was a setback when Galway beat the Cats at Nowlan Park, but from there on the performance graph was in an upwards direction.
Progress was okay in the next match, the Round Robin tie against Wexford. The momentum was more pronounced in the Leinster final, even if Kilkenny did lose to the Slaneysiders after appearing to be over anxious when chasing goals late in the game.
The season changing performance came next time out against Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The fire, the belief, the touch, the high end work-rate were all upped a huge degree and proved too much for the Leesiders.
The defence endured a few ropey moments against the genius of Pat Horgan and Alan Cadogan, but Kilkenny got through.
Confidence soared. Kilkenny had no fear of Limerick after that.
All the power and threat the then champions carried into the semi counted for nothing. Kilkenny simply let rip, and an early scoring storm when they raced 1-8 to 0-2 ahead after 17 minutes proved crucial in the end.
‘Captain Fantastic’ TJ Reid, who has been producing wonder performances all season - the Player of the Year could be a shoot-out between Reid and Callanan - has made Kilkenny this season. He matched high end scoring (5-72) with deadly work, foraging deep, taking on extra responsibility in key moments, and by being there every time the team or a colleague needed a lift.
Without a shadow of a doubt, this is TJ’s best year.
Padraig Walsh has been going great guns too as has Colin Fennelly, another huge score getting and another potential match winner. Full-forward Fennelly scored four goals in one club match this season, and he rose the green in the last two matches too.
Tipp will fear him, his pace and dexterity, his direct, fearless running. There is constant talk about that Tipp will switch their team to cope with his threat.
By the way, Kilkenny have had 21 different scores during the campaign.
Overall Kilkenny have undergone a lot more change than Tipp since the last meeting in the final.
In the semi-final the Cats had nine survivors from the 2016 team. The new players were Huw Lawlor, Paddy Deegan, Conor Browne, Richie Leahy, John Donnelly and Adrian Mullen.
Manager Brian Cody and selectors, Michael Dempsey, James McGarry and Derek Lyng also introduced new blood in the shape of subs, James Maher, Bill Sheehan, who is nursing a hamstring injury, and Billy Ryan.
The form of Paddy Deegan has soared to a new level this season, while Paul Murphy, Conor Fogarty and Walter Walsh have been flying, and former Hurler of the Year, Richie Hogan, enriched things when given a starting place.
The team is close to picking itself now, which is as it should be. From the starting semi side, there could be one change.
Cillian Buckley, if fit, might replace Leahy, but it will be a close call. Young James Maher would be a serious, serious contender too.
Whatever the selectors decide, Kilkenny are ready to go.
Cody has been a new man, a more relaxed man, since the Cork game. The feel good factor has rubbed off on all others.
The mood in the camp is like a volcano ready to explode.
The thing about this final is that it looks like being a straight 15 on 15 shoot-out, a more traditional team against team affair, if you like. Okay, there will be tactics involved, but they won’t involve a sweeper and so on.
Looking for a repeat of the hot, hot semi-final form from Kilkenny is a tall order. It is unlikely that Kilkenny will enjoy the same sizzling start.
However, if they can get to that pitch, even a bit higher, Kilkenny will be celebrating come Sunday evening.
For more on Kilkenny People sport read here.
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