IT’S NOT THE blue riband of hurling and perhaps some believe it is diluted as a result, but there has been enough great material between Kilkenny and Tipperary for hurling people to lap up the prospect of next Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final.
There may not be 80,000 packed into Croke Park like there was for their last three September games but that does not diminish this meeting. Everyone believed after May’s hurling league final that the summer’s championship would simply be a procession until Kilkenny and Tipperary came together in September. But the Leinster final last month changed everything and after their recent battles it’s hard to think of a more eagerly-awaited All-Ireland hurling semi-final than this one.
The consensus is that Tipperary have been simmering nicely during the Munster championship. If Brendan Cummins hadn’t stopped a certain Limerick goal at a vital stage in the second-half of their quarter-final in May, they could have travelled a very different route. What they produced to turn that match around was incredible and a sign of great maturity. They have done what I expected them to do and have Lar Corbett back in their side as well.
But I still question whether he is the player that terrorised the Kilkenny defence in the 2010 final. People can argue that he has only missed league action this year yet being marked absent for five months still affects your eye for the ball, your first touch and your sharpness for inter-county hurling. Lar remains the big goal threat for Tipperary and Kilkenny will target him, seeking to replicate the physical attention they paid him in last year’s All-Ireland final. If Lar is not on fire, I have doubts as to whether Tipperary can win.
Tipperary cannot adopt the same style that did in last September’s All-Ireland. Their management may not say it publicly but I think they must admit privately they was a naivety to their performance in that game. It was a poor decision to put a newcomer like John O’Keeffe on a player of Henry Shefflin’s stature and it was big mistake for their attacking play to become so congested.
This year’s Leinster final, just like the 2010 All-Ireland final, proved again that a potential weakness with Kilkenny is to isolate their defenders. They like safety in numbers at the back but pull players wide, create space inside and you start to cause problems. Brian Cody always asks himself questions when Kilkenny are defeated and uses the answers to develop. If Declan Ryan has done the same, Tipperary have a huge chance.
Brian Cody shakes hands with Declan Ryan after last year’s All-Ireland final. INPHO/Cathal Noonan
I have noticed great positives in Tipperary this year. Shane Bourke is a super talent off the bench and a player who I really like. I also think Padraic Maher and Conor O’Mahony have been collosuses in the Tipperary defence. I watched the 2009 All-Ireland final again on TV last week and saw again just how dominant the two of them were in that game. It reminded me why I said to my son that day in Croke Park during the second-half, that I felt Tipperary were on route to victory. This year Maher and O’Mahony have been rediscovering that form and Kilkenny must find a way to bypass them in the half-back line.
I watched Kilkenny’s quarter-final win over Limerick in Thurles in the company of Jamesie O’Connor and we had concerns about Brian Cody’s side at half-time. We wondered could this be the day could Limerick be the team that brought Kilkenny down before the All-Ireland semi-final stage. But then they came out in the second-half and showed really dominant form. It was best expressed by Colin Fennelly and Limerick simply couldn’t handle him. Last year Colin would not have figured heavily on Tipperary’s radar. This year he will as he has a season’s experience behind him and is as dangerous a forward as there is in the country.
Can Kilkenny go back to the well again in a big game? That’s a key issue and whether that insatiable hunger is still present in their side is something they will not fully know until Sunday afternoon. If Tipperary were to move ahead on the scoreboard, do Kilkenny have the wherewithal to fight back? If they do they will just reaffirm what an extraordinary team they are. But I believe that they will need to lead all the way in this game.
I also suspect that last Sunday’s result could be a critical factor in determining this Sunday’s result. The Leinster final hurt Kilkenny very badly. Win on Sunday and they have a chance to make amends with Galway lying await in the final. I predicted Tipperary as the All-Ireland champions at the start of this year and they have not tripped up yet this summer. But as this game approaches, my gut instinct is leading me to think that if Kilkenny can rekindle their fire, they can edge it. The prospect of facing Galway again may just fuel Kilkenny’s drive to win this match.
Daithí Regan is a former All-Ireland winning hurler with Offaly and his club Birr, who will give expert opinion for TheScore.ie of the key moments that will decide the destination of the Liam McCarthy Cup this year. Regan is an established hurling analyst for TV3 and Newstalk, appearing regularly on the station’s Off The Ball programme.