Last week’s semi-final was hard enough to predict, depending on where you came down on the balance between the dynamism and enthusiasm of Limerick and the craft and experience of Kilkenny. It’s just as hard to make a call this weekend but for different reasons.
Last week was always going to be a physical battle and with conditions and everything else, it turned into a war. If tradition is anything to go by, tomorrow is going to be more of a carnival because both teams will be happy enough to let the other get on with the hurling.
There’s huge confidence in Tipp, which I find puzzling but not surprising. Cork may be Munster champions but Tipperary are looking forward to this after turning around their season to get to the last three and now finding themselves up against opposition they feel they can manage.
They’re also entitled to look at their year in a different way. In 2013 they lost the league final to Kilkenny and ultimately neither county went very far. This year Tipp had a bad period in the league but turned it around and lost the final, again to Kilkenny but after extra-time.
The difference now is Kilkenny are once more Leinster champions and back in an All-Ireland final.
Limerick could have been there instead and Tipp might well have beaten them in the championship. Eamon O’Shea is entitled to feel the form stacks up more encouragingly this year.
This won’t have the physicality of last week’s semi-final because temperamentally both teams are more comfortable with a shoot-out, which on the face of it would suit Tipperary’s forwards.
But they’re not great circumstances for a defence that hasn’t settled. If successful, the tactic of letting defenders pick up individual players – as happened against Dublin – can look like a stroke of genius. I’m more apprehensive about that because I feel it’s disconcerting not to have a settled full back.
James Barry will play there because Pádraic Maher doesn't like it but Barry doesn't look comfortable there either and it isn't his natural position. None of this is great for Darren Gleeson who has enough on his plate stepping into Brendan Cummins's shoes without having to adjust constantly to whoever's playing in front of him.
While an unchanged team suggests stability I'm also very surprised that Michael Cahill, who has been back in training, hasn't been included because he has been the team's most consistent defender and appears ideal for the threat of Alan Cadogan.
That doesn’t mean I can’t see Tipp doing well because they have the potential to score freely. Still, I have Cork as favourites.
They played back in April in the league quarter-final and although Tipperary led by 2-4 to no score after about 10 minutes Cork were ahead at half-time.
Both sides are bound to cut down on the amount of space available that day but that’s still the sort of game we may well see tomorrow.
I have fancied Cork for the All-Ireland since the start. They have improved greatly in this championship. You can argue they have the same issue at full back as Tipp because
has been playing on the wing, leaving Stephen McDonnell to fill in but at least he’s relatively happy to do so and has picked up plenty of experience.
Mark Ellis has made a big difference at centre back, allowing his wings – especially Lorcán McLoughlin – to hurl and thrive. The issue here could be that Ellis likes to sit back as more of a stopper and despite the excellence of Bonner Maher at centre forward, Noel McGrath could usefully get some time there in a Colin Fennelly-type role, moving around and forcing Ellis out of his comfort zone.
Midfield is a potentially key area in this match. In the modern game it's become all about perpetual motion. Even Kilkenny have had to adapt by switching Richie Hogan there. I'm mindful that a number of big games this season have gone to the team that wins the battle in the middle.
This is another area of big improvement for Cork. They were comprehensively outplayed by Clare at midfield in last year’s All-Ireland final so they went away and produced
. He and
ran riot against Clare this time around and ultimately got on top of Limerick, whose midfield had been decisive in beating Tipp, in the Munster final. In other words they haven’t been beaten yet.
For Tipperary this is another area where they haven't been settled, although Shane McGrath played well against Dublin in the quarter-final. But can he and James Woodlock out-muscle Walsh as well as stay on top of Kearney, who is the definition of perpetual motion, has excellent touch and makes such good use of the ball?
I think it’s hard to see Cork not creating a platform.
Tipperary’s hopes are mainly based on the quality of the forwards. They thrive on confidence and if they get going on a given day, they feed off that and generate a fierce energy.
They’ve been scoring freely since the Limerick match and building up self-belief while going through the qualifiers. They may have done it against flawed opposition but they have rebuilt it.
They’ll feel this is a game they can enjoy as will the supporters. That lack of inhibition will suit them.
Cork may have better ball-winners but Tipp are capable of scoring goals and if they can get them early they are going to be hard to beat. John O'Dwyer's been playing well all summer and I expect a big performance from Larry Corbett, but a lot depends on the quality of the ball going in against an improved and better-organised Cork defence.
This fixture has a history of being decided by goals and of overturning the favourites. During my career the All-Ireland champions were beaten three years running in Cork-Tipp matches.
Anything could happen but even with my Tipp hat on, I’d prefer to have Cork’s credentials coming into this.