Former Kilkenny star, Martin Comerford
While both counties might have missed out on winning a provincial title, I would reckon the ultimate aim for managers Brian Cody and Liam Sheedy was to have their team in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.
By whatever route Kilkenny and Tipperary got there, by winning the National League or not, by winning the provincial final or not, they would be satisfied to take it. The fact they are in the final means their team has the chance of winning the ultimate trophy, and both sides have an equal chance of winning.
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Not winning a provincial title won’t have any bearing on the match. At the end of the day winning the All-Ireland final any year is the achievement that matters, the achievement that will be remembered.
Winning the MacCarthy Cup is the real measure of the season for any of the hurling counties. Look at how Galway celebrated it in 2017. Look at what it did for Limerick hurling, and will continue to do for hurling in the county for years, after their great win in 2018?
The All-Ireland final is the Holy Grail of hurling.
Looking at Kilkenny it wasn’t by any means an easy journey. In the first game against Dublin they trucked along in the first half and lacked a bit of sparkle. They had a few players involved, Adrian Mullen, Alan Murphy and Huw Lawlor, three players new to the inter-county set-up, so it a huge challenge. There was a massive turning point in that match when (mentor) Gregory Kennedy was on the field and caught a ball in a play just before half-time.
That got the Kilkenny crowd going and management weren’t a bit pleased either. I am sure that led to a few harsh words being said in the dressing-room at half-time.
When a changed team returned for the second half things looked a lot better and Dublin were put away. After that game, were Kilkenny capable of winning the All-Ireland? There was a question mark.
Then they went to Carlow, and with TJ (Reid) outstanding and Alan Murphy going well too they got the business done. Carlow headed the scoring in the second half, but still Kilkenny won comfortably. There was still a question mark over Kilkenny’s capabilities.
Then Galway were visitors to Nowlan Park. That was a brilliant game. When Galway won that one it looked like they were back as contenders big time after a sluggish start to the campaign.
There was an ever bigger question mark over Kilkenny in terms of being possible contenders for the MacCarthy Cup then. When Kilkenny went to Wexford Park to play Wexford they didn’t win either, and they didn’t look like a possible All-Ireland winning team.
In the Leinster final things improved a bit, but there were still question markings hanging over the team. Whatever happened between the Leinster final and the All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork changed the season completely.
Beating Cork took a massive effort. It did wonders for the confidence of the players and, by extension, the cohesion and effectiveness of the team. Since then Kilkenny have looked a totally different team.
They developed into a very formidable outfit. That can happen in a championship.
Like flicking a switch, the fortunes of a team can change. Look at Ballyhale Shamrocks in Kilkenny last year. They failed to make an impact in the league section of the competition, but they got a run going at the right time. They gained confidence and by the end of the campaign they looked like an unbeatable team.
Kilkenny look to be on a somewhat similar path to the Shamrocks. It must be remembered too that the injuries in the camp cleared, and that boosted things also.
By the time Kilkenny faced Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final the whole scenario had changed. This wasn’t the Kilkenny that had faced Dublin, Carlow, Galway or Wexford.
This was new Kilkenny, if you like, more driven, with more belief, with more passion. For me, that winning performance was the performance of the year, possibly of the last five years.
Definitely since we won the All-Ireland last in 2015 it was our best display by some distance. Everything about the display was brilliant - the suffocating challenges, the tactical plan management had in place, plus the attitude and application of the players. The first touch, the pace of reactions, the shooting and tackling were all on a different level.
They were going into the tackle with aggression, and overall looked a well rounded, formidable team. That was great to see.
All credit to Brian Cody and the selectors for the way they turned things around. From my experience with Brian Cody he is the ultimate motivator, the ultimate tactician. He is a great man to have the right tactics for the right game. His experience in finals, and his record in finals, will be a huge plus for Kilkenny. He has been there and worn the t-shirt.
He knows what way the build-up will flow. He knows how to handle everything around the All-Ireland final. He has helped the county win 11 All-Irelands, while losing only four finals, which is remarkable going.
We have a number of young players going into their first final. Adrian Mullen and Huw Lawlor are young. Paddy Deegan is facing into his first All-Ireland as are the likes of John Donnelly, Conor Browne, Bill Sheehan, Richie Leahy, Billy Ryan and so on.
The All-Ireland is a massive occasion. Fans are really behind the team and they believe Kilkenny have a brilliant chance of winning.
Tipperary had a fair campaign and rounded it off with a super semi-final performance. They started with real power in Munster and swept everyone before them Clare, Limerick, Waterford and Cork. The manner of the defeat in the Munster final was a big shock. It looked like they were struggling in quarters, for pace, for ball winners in their forwards and so on.
They looked to be in a sticky situation. They lifted themselves when beating Laois and then they really turned up against Wexford in the All-Ireland semi-final.
For them, that wasn’t an easy game to win, especially after enduring a difficult first half and then when reduced to 14 men. They didn’t escape to victory after the red card. They actually hurled magnificently when all the odds seemed to be stacked against them.
That took some doing. Liam Sheedy had them on fire. He must have been thrilled with the way the players reacted to being in a bad, bad situation and how many of them stood up to lead the team out of trouble.
What do Kilkenny need to do to win? We need to keep our defensive game, from back to front, very tight. The likes of Seamus Callanan, John McGrath, John O’Dwyer and so on can’t be given the space they got in 2016. That lesson has to be remembered.
That day we left too much of a gap between the full and half back lines. I noticed against Limerick that the half-forward line was dropping back deep and the midfield defence was very strong. The half forwards must help protect the defence as much as possible, to form a shield that will ultimately protect the goal.
We will probably use the same plan again, condense the space on the Tipp forwards. It is a good plan, so why change it?
From experience as a forward, what does a forward want? He wants space. He wants fast, well directed ball. He wants to be able to take his marker into situations that will make him uncomfortable. Give them space and the Tipp attack will hurt you.
Tipperary are a serious, serious team, but this is a winnable match for Kilkenny. Of the two semi-finals, I would think the Kilkenny/Limerick match produced a slightly higher standard of play.
All-Ireland finals can take on a life of their own, but the strength of that performance gives me great hope that Kilkenny can turned what looked like being an ordinary year into a truly memorable one.
Also, we must wish the Kilkenny minor hurlers the best of luck in their All-Ireland final against defending champions, Galway. This group of young lads didn’t make an impact at under-14 or 15 level, and they didn’t win an awful lot.
Watching their results all season, and their form in recent matches, they have really come on. Come Monday they could be All-Ireland champions.
The players have to believe they can be. They did outplay Galway big time during the second half of the Leinster final. They should think about that part of the game. Think about what they did then, and see where that bring them.
They know Galway now. They know how to play them. Their deadly form against Limerick in the semi-final showed they have improved big time since the Leinster final. They have nothing to fear.
Best of luck lads!
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