Cornered Tipperary must finally front up to finish off a weary and depleted Kilkenny

Loser of this high-stakes qualifier will be staring into the hurling abyss

Kilkenny’s Aidan Fogarty holds off Shane McGrath of Tipperary during the NHL final. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Kilkenny’s Aidan Fogarty holds off Shane McGrath of Tipperary during the NHL final. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

The hurling championship is supposed to be a slow burn but the qualifiers have finally delivered a momentous collision the HDC originally planned for. Kilkenny and Tipperary are where they deserve to be. Winning teams march behind the band on Sundays.

This is a genuine chance of redemption for Tipp. Cut the Kilkenny chain in July, in Nowlan Park of all places, and they are free.

The consequence of defeat for Brian Cody’s Shefflin-less team on their own training ground is hard to quantify. That fear should drag something extra out of them, but I’ve been saying for a few weeks now that they are playing to a consistent level, just way below the standard they tend to produce.

They have some serious personnel problems. No Henry Shefflin, Michael Fennelly, Paul Murphy and Jackie Tyrrell’s quad injury doesn’t look to have cleared up and that’s before mentioning their subdued forwards.

Last Saturday an unfit Tyrrell and fellow corner back Conor Fogarty came under immense pressure. Dotsy O’Callaghan and Paul Ryan were scoring at will. The major damage was largely done by Dublin’s hugely destructive wing forwards Conal Keaney and Danny Sutcliffe. Tipperary don’t have similar physical specimens and struggled to win their own ball against Limerick.

From midfield upwards Kilkenny have struggled. Only the outstanding Richie Power let off a shot from play at the Dublin goal in the second half last week.

Walter Walsh, in the drawn Dublin match, got their only goal in championship. That’s an astonishing statistic for Kilkenny after three outings.

Eoin Larkin, Aidan Fogarty and their shining light in the league, Richie Hogan, have been bottled up without much complaint. Colin Fennelly and Lester Ryan have provided sporadic glimpses of their worth.

In general they look uncertain, lacking the pattern and assurance we have grown accustomed to. The calmness of Shefflin is a factor but sometimes a team just falls into a rut.

Flicking the switch becomes very difficult when it’s too dark to find the wall.

At least they have been fighting manfully for every ball. That will always be the way of a Cody team.

So, from a Tipperary perspective this is about fronting up. They have seen the level Kilkenny are at. They need to go mano -a-mano and let the hurling decide their fate.

More orthodox
In the last few games Noel McGrath has drifted into midfield, and it worked well in the league final, but he was anonymous against Limerick. When Tipp revert to a more orthodox set-up they have performed better.

A basic principle of hurling is to win your own ball. In those last 20 minutes of the Munster semi-final it was all too easy for Limerick. There wasn’t enough ball-winning by the Tipp forwards. It was coming out the field far too cleanly.

For a perfect tutorial see the muscular frames of Keaney and Sutcliffe hounding the Kilkenny half-back line last Saturday in Portlaoise.

Patrick Maher, McGrath and John O’Brien will be tasked with denying Brian Hogan or Tommy Walsh the run of their familiar patches of Nowlan Park. They must not let them feel like they are immersed in one of those often-spoken- about Kilkenny training sessions, they must make it seem like their worst nightmare is becoming a reality.

For Tipp to win, the forwards must win their own ball then take their own scores or at least pick up frees like Dublin did.

No excuse will be acceptable for underperforming again tonight. History tells me they will empty the tank.

Tipp have always been a far more effective hurling entity when adopting the wounded animal role.

Against Limerick, and going back over the years, Tipperary have always struggled with the favourites’ tag. We get overconfident a little too easily.

Points ahead
Four points ahead at the Gaelic Grounds and they took their foot off Limerick’s throat. Some corrosive hitting by Richie McCarthy and Declan Hannon on Shane McGrath changed the game, bringing us to tonight’s unique scenario.

In 2011 Tipp came unstuck when expected to drive on past Kilkenny, whereas in 2009, as underdogs, they arguably should have won the All-Ireland before exploding to life in the 2010 final as Kilkenny were being heralded as the greatest team of all time.

The fact we have gone back to the 2010 side, with the exception of Gearóid Ryan and the retired Declan Fanning, raises concerns about those who have come into the panel since.

I’m glad to see Eoin Kelly and Larry Corbett return. Larry can delete last year’s debacle by seeking out Tyrrell. Welcome the challenge, take him on, because Jackie doesn’t look any way near fit.

I have no concerns about the Tipperary defence. Considering the hail stones pelting down on them against Limerick, they stayed remarkably dry although Kieran Bergin will be a loss at wing back.

Victory here would, in one fell swoop, address a dreadful record in Nowlan Park. They have never met there in championship and did win a league match in 2008 but I remember some awful beatings.

In 1988 a highly rated, up-and-coming Tipp team went on to win a National League title in some style but not before a fearsome 2-12 to 0-4 hammering in March.

Dublin put Kilkenny away with 1-16. About 20 points should do it tonight – 2-14 maybe – goals will drive Tipperary onwards but I am going on the memory of Corbett and others from 2010.

The abyss
John O’Dwyer has goals in him. Whoever loses falls into the abyss. Not since the 1990s, 1996 for Kilkenny and 1999 for Tipp, have either county been put out to pasture at this stage of the season. .

If Kilkenny lose, the end of an era lament will be heard from their own people. If they win for Tipperary it would mean that even a depleted Kilkenny team, following on from what Limerick did, can put away the men expected to drive on from the 2010 All-Ireland success.

Neither team wanted this game. Far too much at stake for July. It’s still a long way up to an All-Ireland but by God the drop goes some way down into the blackness.

A cornered Tipperary, with the help of a few goals, should have enough hunger about them to progress.