Nicky English: Tipperary’s experience the key in a hard-call decider
The two great rivals look to be reaching their peaks at just the right time ahead of final
John McGrath needs to deliver in the Tipperary forward line in Sunday’s All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
An appropriately hard call at the end of a championship that no team has dominated. Both finalists have suffered significant defeats along the way but both had exceptionally impressive wins in the All-Ireland semi-finals and that is a good point to pick up form.
There is though, an underlying question about those victories and that is, how much did the opposition contribute to making them happen? To what extent was Kilkenny’s dialled-up intensity facilitated by Limerick’s poor anticipation and inability to reset to optimum after a poor start and series of unfocused wides?
And how much of Tipp’s late surge out of adversity was attributable to Wexford abandoning their game plan as fatigue bit in on them?
Then there is the recent history between the counties. They have been in so many big days over the past 10 years. Ominously for Tipperary, since their triumphant win in the 2016 All-Ireland final they haven’t managed to beat Kilkenny once in the league over four meetings.
On the other hand, all of those contests – bar the 2017 final, which would prove very damaging for Tipp – have been one-point matches or a draw. Never has the cliché about whichever team seizes the day been as appropriate.
To make it less vague, which team can grasp the initiative in the half-back line and build the best platform for their forwards – on the one hand, Séamie Callanan, Bubbles O’Dwyer and what Tipp hope will be an improved John McGrath or Colin Fennelly, Adrian Mullen and TJ Reid?
We hear a lot of assumptions that the Tipperary forwards are better than Kilkenny’s but it’s hard to agree.
Kilkenny have the three mentioned above plus a Walter Walsh getting back to near his physical best and if Tipp are hoping that John McGrath will get back to form, their opponents will also be looking for Richie Hogan to get back to the level of the quarter-final against Cork rather than the lacklustre semi-final.
That would be a formidable unit.
Brian Cody’s problems have actually been farther back. They’ve been under pressure in the full-back line, had to make changes at midfield. That vulnerability at the back was ruthlessly exposed by Tipp in 2016.
These difficulties could go a long way to being resolved were injuries to clear a bit further. A returned Cillian Buckley is a welcome addition even if there have to be match fitness issues.
His inclusion is a big plus for Kilkenny either straight to midfield or in a swap with Conor Fogarty, but only if he has regained form, of which there hasn’t been a lot of evidence in his cameo appearances so far.
It’s all the more critical given that Noel McGrath has been the most influential midfielder in this year’s championship.
There have been some really encouraging performances from the younger Kilkenny players, like Conor Browne in midfield, but if Cody had a full selection at his disposal there would be no question of people like Buckley and Hogan not starting.
At the back, they take credit for containing Limerick, who had 15 wides – but was that down to the quality of the marking or simply, the shock of absorbing Kilkenny’s aggression and pressure in the opening quarter?
It’s a stretch to think that some of those wides, from Aaron Gillane, Cian Lynch, Graeme Mulcahy and Kyle Hayes were anything to do with the actual defence as opposed to the psychological impact of that early intensity.
There was also the impact of the jolt to expectations that their game plan would find a way through the middle as usual and especially as they did in the Nowlan Park league match. They also failed to man-mark TJ Reid, leaving Declan Hannon to sit back, which allowed Kilkenny get on to the front foot.
None of this will take Tipperary by surprise and there’s very little prospect of Reid being left to his own devices with Brendan Maher in the form of his life after coming back from serious injury.
TJ was man-marked by Matt O’Hanlon against Wexford and that proved fairly effective. For Liam Sheedy not to follow suit wouldn’t look great on the post-match assessment forms!
If we accept that the Kilkenny backline – for all the promise of Huw Lawlor and the form of Pádraig Walsh – has looked vulnerable, what about Tipperary, whose defence was in tatters against Limerick in the Munster final and then opened up like a cat-flap by Wexford?
If Tipp were down to 14 and Kilkenny five up, we can go home.
So we know that Kilkenny will finish the job if they have a chance and certainly won’t abdicate their marking responsibilities on Callanan or Noel McGrath.
You could argue that the sending-off of John McGrath in the semi-final did two things. One, it forced Tipp into that backs-to-the-wall state of mind, which is a peculiarly hard thing to do with them. Two, it created swathes of space in Croke Park and with that sort of room on Sunday, they win – no question.
But Kilkenny have shut down their movement and exploitation of space before – like in the 2014 replay – when going man for man. Can they do that again?
This is so finely balanced with even the benches offering no particular advantage. If Limerick were here, there’d be no question about who the favourites would be but they’re not and the rest are largely capable of beating each other.
For me, Tipperary are marginally more balanced, which isn’t the same as saying they’ve better players. Both attacks are potent but John McGrath needs to deliver on that potential whereas Kilkenny have a critical mass of forwards in form.
But go through the other areas. Tipp are physically stronger and more solid in defence – where the Mahers will be formidable – and midfield. The boot is also on the other foot in relation to experience with so many Kilkenny players in their first final.
Can Tipp find the desire they had against Wexford? I think they can because that semi-final win was huge, hacked out of the most unpromising circumstances and they were driven by all of the question marks being raised about them after the Munster final defeat.
This is a team that has had bad days and has had multiple knocks to their confidence. Last year was a disaster and they had the couple of league finals, which drained their self-belief as well as the recent Munster final. I think the Wexford performance has rinsed that out of their system. That and their greater overall experience may well be decisive because this match will go all the way to the finishing line.