A tipping point... or same old Kilkenny?
BY now, it's a well-worn cliche that ever since derailing the Drive for Five in 2010, Tipperary have struggled to slay their stripey nemesis in the matches that mattered.
Occasionally they've been pummelled - the second half of that infamous, from a Tipp perspective, semi-final in 2012 being the lopsided yardstick. A far more frequent occurrence is that they've been squeezed out after an epic struggle by a Kilkenny team that seemingly revels in reeling in the Premier.
Then we had the All-Ireland final of 19 days ago. A new twist in the script: stalemate. Not just that, but deadlock of a different kind, Tipperary scoring five of the last six points to send the All-Ireland to a second day.
In the rush to second-guess replays, there is a tendency to extrapolate based on day-one trends. Who left victory behind? Who has momentum? Who has more scope for improvement? Who has learned more?
There has been a suggestion in some quarters that Tipp, having bucked the recent trend by battling back to force a draw, have for once grabbed the psychological advantage. Their manager, though, refutes the notion that some nebulous barrier has been broken.
"You're playing one of the greatest teams of all time so I don't think they (the players) would think like that," Eamon O'Shea surmised.
"I don't think like that. I always feel that we have a chance when we play any team. I believe absolutely in the team I have, it's not relative to anything. I wouldn't think like that, that Tipp had broken a psychological barrier ... we don't always win but we do believe."
The counter-argument, of course, is that Tipperary blew it again. They were, after all, six points clear after 24 minutes. Shortly beforehand, a penalty to go eight up was saved. A second penalty, preceded by several more goal openings in the third quarter, failed to hit the jackpot. Then, right at the death, John O'Dwyer's 97-metre free was mere inches and one Hawk-Eye ruling away from bisecting the gates of heaven.
"It was bubbling away in the background but there is a history between the teams," said Tipp coach Paudie O'Neill. "Those are facts. But facts are facts. History can also be a distraction. We weren't going out thinking we've played Kilkenny 'X' number of times and we have or haven't beaten them however many times."
That history continued last spring along familiar lines. When the sides met in Nowlan Park last February, the Allianz League was only its its second week and a scorefest ensued, one that oscillated wildly first in favour of Tipperary (who led by ten points after half an hour) and then the belatedly stirring hosts.
Kilkenny would finally draw level after 56 minutes. The sides were still inseparable after 65 ... but then an unanswered 1-3 salvo propelled the Cats to a somewhat surreal six-point victory, 5-20 to 5-14. Séamus Callanan scored 3-6 (3-1 from play) and ended on the losing side. Colin Fennelly rampaged his way to 3-5 (all from play) for Kilkenny.
Leaving Noreside, a 16-point turnaround must have gnawed at the Tipp psyche, even if it was "only February".
Early May brought another setback to the old enemy in yet another league final (a repeat of 2009 and 2013). Yet, painful as it was, our suspicion is that Tipp would have taken some solace from that extra-time defeat by a threadbare 2-25 to 1-27.
True, here was another tale of Premier pretenders failing to build on a six-point lead - after 27 minutes - but it's worth recalling that Kilkenny's subsequent comeback was aided by the award of two penalties both buried - under the old rule book dispensation and in emphatic Anthony Nash style - by TJ Reid. Tipp didn't have that yard-stealing luxury three weeks ago, but that's another story.
In that league final thriller, Kilkenny were back level after 50 minutes and it was nick-and-tuck for the next 40, right until Reid's match-winner in the last play of extra-time. A continuation of their Indian sign? Perhaps. A battle of virtual equals? September 7 reaffirmed as much.
Brian Cody is never one for revealing inner-thoughts - especially when there's an All-Ireland still to be won - yet his summary of this epic rivalry is still hard to gainsay.
"We played Tipperary in the league final this year and after 70 minutes it was a draw. We played an All-Ireland final this year and after 70 minutes it was a draw. There's nothing between Kilkenny and TIpperary from a statistics point of view or contests between us," Cody argued.
"Do I know they could beat us on a given day? I'm positively certain they could. I'm certain we could beat them too; there's nothing between both teams ... they are two outstanding teams and who knows where it is going to go the next day.
"Everybody talks about the quality of the game the last day and it was top-notch - superb. But it could be completely different the next day and still be top-notch. Just because it was free-flowing, score, score, score - it could be different. It could take on a different life but it could still be massively enthralling again; low-scoring and still provide huge quality."
Last word to Paudie O'Neill: "What happened the last day, that's history. At some stage you have to draw a line under it and say there's another game to be played."