Tipperary to pen epic final script
ALL-IRELAND SHC FINAL REPLAY TIPPERARY v KILKENNY Croke Park, Today 5.0 (Live RTÉ 2, Sky Sports 3)
THERE are two types of replay. The kind where you know instinctively there can be only one outcome - strange as that statement may sound about two recently inseparable rivals - and the one where no one can honestly pronounce, in advance, that Team X will prevail over Team Y.
Say hello to Tipp/Kilkenny, the sequel.
Twenty days on from the greatest All-Ireland hurling final known to man, these implacable rivals get ready for round two.
Much was made, before day one, of Kilkenny's recurring knack for getting the job done against Tipp. They may fall behind - by as much as ten points in the league last February - but slipping away in meek acceptance of their fate is not in Team Cody's DNA.
Does that translate into some psychological kink in the Tipperary mindset? Steady on. These are not just implacable foes but, of late, pretty inseparable too. A rip-roaring league final was locked in parity after 70 minutes; it was only in the dying embers of the additional extra 20 that Kilkenny broke free to win by a point.
Four months and many summer twists later, this was followed by our recent epic stalemate. Thus, over the past 160 minutes, the scoreboard reads Kilkenny 5-47, Tipperary 2-55. The Cats by a one-point whisker.
Given this weight of statistical evidence, any bold proclamations about Liam MacCarthy's ultimate destination should be taken with an industrial dose of sodium chloride.
Still, previews must be penned and fences avoided under pain of splinters.
Before day one, this observer made a marginal judgement call in favour of the Premier. In doing so, we were in a minority. It could also be construed as something of a gamble.
But the underdogs brought momentum into that first final, and they should carry more of it into the replay. Moreover, the last day reinforced the suspicion that Kilkenny are vulnerable to the very qualities that made us favour Tipp in the first place.
It wasn't just that Kilkenny leaked 1-24 in open play - 1-18 of that to Tipp's starting six forwards. It was how their defence was consistently troubled by rapier pace and constant movement.
Forget what Séamus Callanan or John O'Dwyer or Noel McGrath scored and consider the genesis of Tipp's two squandered penalties - surging runs by Patrick 'Bonner' Maher and Lar Corbett, culminating in the inevitable drag-down. Or how Corbett burned his man in the preamble to his 'Roy of the Rovers' shot against the woodwork. Or how Gearóid Ryan (in one of his few positive contributions) combined with Bonner only to flash another glorious goal chance over.
In fairness, Kilkenny's defending was heroic at times, Paul Murphy making several masterful interventions.
But Tipp's forward line has grown in confidence, step by incremental step, ever since losing to Limerick in June. Éamon O'Shea wasn't happy with their fluency even after Cork were comprehensively put to the semi-final sword; and maybe he won't have been happy with their conversion of just one goal chance (from multiple opportunities) three weeks ago. But their point-taking, from every conceivable angle, bordered on the sublime.
Of course, there is no guarantee they'll repeat that strike rate this evening while a forewarned Kilkenny will hope their revamped defence can apply a much tighter squeeze.
Brian Cody was relatively slow to change his back-line the last day, waiting 61 minutes before introducing Pádraig Walsh for Joey Holden, but now he has made two half-back changes - Walsh for Holden and Kieran Joyce for Brian Hogan at centre-back. The latter is a big call, albeit the veteran Hogan has suffered leakage in Kilkenny's last two outings.
Cody's other big decision? Not restoring Henry Shefflin to his starting six up front, instead preferring John Power for the predictably omitted Walter Walsh. Cody's aversion to All-Ireland sentiment is hardly a new concept; and given that King Henry was left limbering up until the 66th minute of the drawn game, we can only guess that he questions the ability of his 35-year-old talisman to still wield his magic in such a frenetic, 100mph environment.
Making another three changes for the replay underlines both the strength and weakness of Kilkenny. They have a greater array of viable options - nine of their 11 listed subs have started a match this summer, the exceptions being Jonjo Farrell and, curiously, Shefflin. Yet the constant need for two, three, even five changes (the Galway replay) suggests a manager still striving for his optimum line-up.
Has he finally found it now? Possibly: Kilkenny fans will be emboldened by memories of his inspired Walter Walsh gamble against Galway two years ago; by Cody's generally sound record of getting things right in replays; by their apparent greater scope for improvement; by the knowledge that Tipp arguably had their chance; by the form of their new leadership brigade, the mid-20s crew led so wonderfully by Richie Hogan ... by Kilkenny's knack (Richie Power and TJ Reid especially) for conjuring up goals when the need is greatest.
For all that, we're sticking with Tipp - for their speed of thought and movement; their burgeoning confidence; and the sense that here is a team on an upward trajectory. A team whose time has arrived - again - four years on from 2010.
BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Tipperary 11/10 Draw 9/1 Kilkenny evens