After the upheaval of last yearâ€™s championship, the old order returns for Sundayâ€™s league decider at Semple Stadium.
Will Cody - as the bookies suggest - manage a third league final win over Knocknagow? Or has a Tipperary upswing in form come with perfect timing to halt the pattern of recent years?
Anticipating the answer is everyoneâ€™s focus this week.
Thereâ€™s no doubt the Tipp/Kilkenny story has dominated hurling over most of the past decade; and equally undeniable is the fact that weâ€™ve come off poor seconds in that rivalry. The stats are stark. As manager Cody faced Tipperary in eighteen league games thus far, winning a dozen of them, drawing once and losing just five times.
Codyâ€™s championship record against Tipperary is even more impressive. His team has squared up to Tipp on seven occasions since he took command. Yet the record shows our championship win of 2010 standing in splendid isolation.
In the circumstances Tipperary folk will be forgiven for feeling a type of jaded familiarity with our eastern neighbours. Weâ€™re often accused of arrogance in this county, but alongside Kilkenny weâ€™ve endured a lot of humility in recent times.
All of which puts Sundayâ€™s final in perspective. The performance may have been more important than the outcome in the semi-final against Clare but on Sunday nothing but a win will satisfy the long-suffering followers.
We approach the game in upbeat mood. The angst of March has been set aside and thereâ€™s a buzz about the team once more. Winning builds confidence and weâ€™ve certainly got momentum moving since the Dublin league round. Whether or not our revival has enough substance to take out Kilkenny is the big imponderable ahead of Sunday.
The venue will be a help because weâ€™ve suffered enough in Nowlan Park. We lost last yearâ€™s final there by a modest three points (2-17 to 0-20). That was the day when Michael Fennelly sliced through our defence for two first half goals, goals which ultimately proved match winners against a visiting side that found little freedom in attack.
Back on February 23 this year our attack was allowed far more latitude but even then our five goals werenâ€™t enough to quell the Kilkenny fight back. Our previous league final against them was at Semple Stadium back in 2009. It produced a spectacular contest which eventually went to extra time before the â€˜catsâ€™ prevailed narrowly on a score line of 2-26 to 4-17. At least it was a significant improvement from the seventeen-point drubbing weâ€™d suffered earlier that year in a league round. Our last win in a league round over Kilkenny was in March 2013 when we prevailed narrowly at the Stadium, 2-17 to 1-19.
I suspect our line out will be quite similar to that which saw off Clare in the semi, though with Eamon Oâ€™Shea in charge one can never rule out a surprise or two. Paddy Stapletonâ€™s wrist injury looks set to keep him sidelined, which should see the same goalie and defence on duty. Perhaps midfield too will be the same unless Shane McGrath is favoured.
If there are adjustments from the Clare game one expects them in attack. â€˜Bonnerâ€™ Maher seems to have suffered a recurrence of that ongoing hamstring difficulty while in training camp at Clonea during the week. He didnâ€™t field for his club at the weekend so hopefully it will have mended in time. Niall Oâ€™Meara too has been sidelined with a finger injury though Noel McGrath was fit to assist his club in their draw with Moycarkey last Saturday.
Hopefully a full complement will be available for selection given the importance of the game. Gearoid Ryan may be in competition with Denis Maher after his introduction the last day but our biggest prayer for the attack is that â€˜Bonnerâ€™ and Niall Oâ€™Meara will be ready in time.
Kilkenny experimented a lot over the league rounds but were back to a more familiar looking formation for the semi-final win over Galway. J.J. Delaney will certainly have added security to full back where his clash with Seamus Callanan will be revealing. Padraig Walsh took brother Tommyâ€™s place at number five the last day and turned in a man-of-the-match performance. Heâ€™s certainly got star quality though without the waspishness of Tommy.
Thereâ€™s an interesting Tipp connection in corner back, Brian Kennedy, whose dad, John, comes from Clonoulty. Michael Fennelly was back at midfield the last day and weâ€™ll certainly remember him from last year. Walter Walsh did us significant damage in the league round in February and of course thereâ€™s Shefflin to bother about too. Thereâ€™s no doubt Kilkenny are still the benchmark and I expect some of our newcomers especially to be tested on Sunday.
Itâ€™s a big game and a big challenge for our newfound optimism. Forget this talk of performance being more important than the result. This is one we need to win and Iâ€™ll be very reluctant to take any positives from defeat. After the football win last Saturday this is a rare chance of a league double.
Meanwhile the second round of our county championship certainly put tongues wagging as some of the score lines rolled in. I doubt if Cashel or Cappawhite will be taking too many positives from their experiences. The King Cormacs got taken for a thirty-eight point trimming by Kilruane and Cappaâ€™ were only slightly better as Sarsfields topped them by thirty-two. These were hurling â€˜massacresâ€™ and thereâ€™s no hiding from that reality.
At first I couldnâ€™t believe the Cashel collapse because it didnâ€™t seem to tally with a form line through Boherlahan, Holycross and Kilruane. â€˜Buggyâ€™ Oâ€™Meara it seems scored 2-17 and they were without his brother, Niall. With Cappawhite in similar trouble it raises major issues for the West particularly with a serious risk now that they could lose two sides to relegation. Indeed Kickhams, after their defeat to Lorrha, will also be in trouble unless they can beat Davins, which is going to be a crunch game now in that group. In the remaining group Borrisokane look vulnerable.
I suppose these results highlight the discrepancy in standard between teams and add weight to the argument for a reduction in the number of senior sides. Defeats of this magnitude cripple player morale and perhaps itâ€™s time clubs undertook a realistic reappraisal of their whereabouts. The new structure has certainly brought this issue to the forefront.
Also in Cashelâ€™s group Holycross edged out Boherlahan at the Ragg on Sunday evening. This was a real â€˜needleâ€™ affair between close neighbours with a major bust-up happening near the end where several individuals were lucky to escape the ultimate sanction. Minutes before a Holycross sub had a very short innings when he saw red for an off-the-ball stroke.
On the hurling side Holycross got away to an early lead with goals from Liam Moloney and goalie, John Ferncombe, who did an Anthony Nash on a â€˜penaltyâ€™. Boherlahan hit back well though for their own pair of goals, the first rifled in by free specialist, Darragh Hickey, and the second a mite fortunate as a Brian Maher side line â€˜cutâ€™ dipped under the bar with the goalie bothered by a slanting sun. It put Boherlahan one up at the interval but Holycross had a bit more scoring potential and deserved to edge the outcome in the second half.
The focus now switches back to the divisional championships before the final round of the county series.
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