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Saturday 1 October 2016

Tipp to grab final chance

Premier must match ‘masters of intensity’ to end their Kilkenny jinx

Tipperary manager Michael Ryan. Photo :Sportsfile
Tipperary manager Michael Ryan. Photo :Sportsfile
Kilkenny's Paul Murphy fails to hook Tipp's Noel McGrath during last March's Allianz HL Division 1A clash in Semple Stadium, Thurles. Photo: Sportsfile

When the bookies are completely flummoxed, it often makes sense to pause before rushing to judgement. And that's the thing about tomorrow's All-Ireland SHC semi-final: most of the major bookmakers are offering the exact same price on our two protagonists.

They rarely get it badly wrong; now they can't even make up their minds. So what odds we'll be back here in three weeks' time, previewing the fourth hurling final replay in five seasons? Stranger things have happened ... except it wouldn't be strange at all.

In one key respect, of course, these old foes aren't well matched at all. The history of Kilkenny/Tipperary since the latter claimed that supposedly watershed All-Ireland victory in 2010 is a tale of ongoing, near-total Kilkenny domination: 13 games, ten victories, one draw and two losses.

Of their five championship collisions Kilkenny have won four, the epic All-Ireland deadlock of 2014 proving the sole exception. Their only defeats have come in a brace of less-than-pivotal league encounters at Semple Stadium. But when a league title was on the line, in 2013 and '14, they've won each time.

Even as Brian Cody's options have diminished with each retirement of another legend, his team has taken out the patent on how to survive and thrive in the tightest of corners. This magnificent trait has been evident against most of their chief rivals (Waterford twice last month) but is even more palpable against Tipperary.

Given their lopsided head-to-head record, that old adage springs to mind: "If in doubt, back Kilkenny."

So to predict a Tipperary victory tomorrow requires a leap of faith - if and when this game comes down to another edge-of-the-seat finale, will the challengers reveal the mental fortitude to out-Kilkenny Kilkenny?

And yet, if you sit back and consider this contest from Michael Ryan's perspective, there are reasons for cautious optimism.

It's true that Waterford's Munster final non-performance can now be seen as an imploding blip ... by the same token you can't whitewash the extent of Tipp's dominance, their ability to plunder the Deise for five goals; nor can you totally ignore how Kilkenny were pushed to the brink and beyond by the same opponent.

It's hard to conceive Kilkenny's defence suffering a similar meltdown under aerial assault; less likely still that a Cody team would replicate Waterford's white flag collapse. And yet if Tipp can relocate that top gear - and more especially their goal threat - they could be halfway to victory.

Ominous

Tipperary's subsequent semi-final display - their struggle to break down Galway's defence, the lack of pin-prick sharpness epitomised by two turnovers leading to both goals - was ominous in one respect.

Any repeat and Kilkenny will punish them. End of. As Ryan remarked afterwards, Tipp will need "a level of intensity that's far more consistent than what we showed out there ... that's the challenge. Because we're playing the masters of intensity."

The flip side is that many provincial champions (Kilkenny included on day one against Waterford) have struggled with the five-week gap to their semi-final. That shouldn't be an issue tomorrow.

Under Ryan they've become more direct and look better equipped, physically, to cope with Kilkenny ... the unanswered question, though, is how the likes of Séamus Kennedy, Ronan Maher, Michael Breen, Dan McCormack and John McGrath will deal with the pressures of playing in their first senior decider.

And yet, for all that, Breen has been a marauding revelation at midfield and ditto the younger McGrath, as both finisher and creator.

Even if Séamus Callanan hasn't quite scaled the heights of 2014/15, he has still tallied 2-9 from play and delivered that deftest of assists for McGrath's semi-final goal.

The reality is, if Callanan is held scoreless from play as he was against Galway, Tipp will struggle to reach a winning total. But he doesn't have to shoot the lights out either - not if the McGrath brothers and John O'Dwyer, the subject of so much "will he or won't he?" debate this week, contribute as we know they can.

For Kilkenny, even though TJ Reid is still not operating at last year's stellar level, his midfield switch for the Waterford replay brought him back to the hub of activity.

Tipperary know it will be impossible to subdue Reid and the irrepressible Richie Hogan for the full 70. The key will be curtailing their influence; if this duo wrest control for long enough, it could be game over.

But Cody will also require Walter Walsh to utilise his fearsome physicality - ideally by shunting Pádraic Maher out of his stride.

Unheralded

The unheralded Liam Blanchfield, a promising amalgam of size and finishing acumen, hit the ground running on his full debut … can he repeat it on the biggest day?

As Barry Coughlan now knows, Colin Fennelly has all the attributes of pace, power and killer instinct to destroy a full-back … but inconsistency has been an issue, so can he do it back-to-back?

What cannot be doubted is that his big brother, Michael Fennelly, will be missed. He has often reserved his best days for September and Tipp. Cody will reshuffle his middle-eight in a bid to limit his loss, but it might - just might - tilt the balance in favour of the Premier pretender.

Can we trust Tipp yet? Not sure. But here goes …

Boylesports odds: Kilkenny 11/10 Draw 8/1 Tipp 11/10

Verdict: Tipperary

All-Ireland SHC Final: Kilkenny v Tipperary, Croke Pk, Tomorrow 3.30 (Live Rté 1/Sky Sp 3)

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