Nicky English: Tipperary's greater goal-scoring threat may swing a tight affair

Tipperary's hot can see them beat Kilkenny but their cold won't be good enough

Richie Hogan: one of the best players in the country and certain to be a key man for Kilkenny in the All-Ireland hurling final. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Richie Hogan: one of the best players in the country and certain to be a key man for Kilkenny in the All-Ireland hurling final. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Here we are: the two best teams in the country ready to go head-to-head for the All-Ireland title. Kilkenny, even with the loss of so many decorated players, and Tipperary deserve to be the last teams left standing in this year’s championship.

It’s a fascinating match-up, which looks set to go down to the wire. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we are all back for a replay next Saturday.

From a long way out, I expected Kilkenny and Tipperary to be the two teams to reach the final. Galway and Waterford were really good at times, especially in their semi-finals, but it is fitting that the old rivalry between Kilkenny and Tipp gets another outing.

I’ll be honest: I find this one hard to call. I think Tipperary are well capable of winning, as they’ve had a cut about them from the get-go. Importantly, Tipp’s new blood – Séamus Kennedy, Michael Breen and Dan McCormack – have contributed handsomely; John McGrath has also been a key addition, bringing a serious goal threat.

Regardless of whether Bubbles O’Dwyer starts – he gives a different emphasis on how the team plays – I don’t doubt Tipperary’s ability to win for a minute.

It is all about winning, and on that front it is Kilkenny who have had the know-how. Recent history is stacked in Kilkenny’s favour. Other than 2010, Kilkenny have won all the close matches between the two teams. From 2011- 2014, in qualifiers, semi-finals or finals, Tipperary were on the receiving end.

I’d even go back to the most recent league match at Nowlan Park as a pointer. Tipperary looked to have it won but again were beaten. People might say it was only the league but it is significant as it demonstrates that Kilkenny have the greater winning know-how in games between the two teams. The reality is Kilkenny have been the better team and have shown greater resolve.

Best players

However, Kilkenny have lost some of their best players in the last few years. On top of that, this year they lost Ger Aylward, James Maher and most importantly Michael Fennelly. He has been described as a big dog to have on your porch and, without him, it leaves a lot more room for Tipperary manoeuvres. The guard dog is missing.

So far in this championship, the middle of the field has been crucial. The team that has won the middle of the field has invariably won the match. That was again brought home in the semi-finals. Galway were winning when Johnny Coen was in midfield with David Burke; however, an injury to Adrian Tuohy meant Coen was moved out and Tipperary got a foothold. Galway weren’t as dominant in the middle.

Fennelly was outstanding for Kilkenny in the semi-final replay and you could argue it was only when he went off that Waterford were able to regain parity in the middle area; it very nearly got them back over the line. The loss of Fennelly is a big issue, so whoever steps in has major shoes to fill.

There are some intriguing match-ups. Richie Hogan is most likely going to have a go at Ronan Maher. Hogan is a key player for Kilkenny. In my opinion Hogan and TJ Reid are the two best players in the country. If Hogan is centre forward, Maher has questions to answer: does he follow him? Does he leave the whole centre half back line open? Does he stand his ground at centre back and hope the breaking ball comes his way? For an inexperienced player, it’s going to be tough.

Match that scenario up on the other side and you wonder should Tipperary do that with Kieran Joyce: have Noel McGrath at centre forward and play a Hogan-type role instead of Bonner Maher’s direct approach? Austin Gleeson certainly caused Kilkenny trouble doing that.

Key area

Then there’s the prospect of the power and strength of Páidi Maher who will be matched up with Walter Walsh. Two huge men, both important players: in that instance, will Maher be on the front foot or the back foot?

It will make a huge difference if Maher gets on the front foot as delivery to the Tipperary forward line is much better. If Walsh succeeds in getting Maher on the back foot, the clearances are skyward and it will put pressure all the way up the field on Tipperary.

Another key area will be the match-ups between the half backs and half forwards. Will the Tipperary half forwards get Cillian Buckley or Pádraig Walsh going backwards, or will Walter Walsh and Eoin Larkin be doing that on the other side? These are fascinating and decisive contests.

Tipperary came through Munster very easily and you have to question that provincial form because Waterford were a totally different team in their games with Kilkenny.

Then, Tipp weren’t as good against Galway. I expected them to underperform but thought if they got by, they would win the All-Ireland. They did the first two bits but my confidence in their winning the All-Ireland was rocked by their display, particularly in the last 10 minutes. Even after getting the two goals, they showed nervousness and became wasteful.

They lived on their nerves and coughed up ball in defence as they did in 2015. There were aimless wides and that anxiety combined with the drop-off in form for some of their main players from the Munster campaign puts a question mark in my head.

Kilkenny are resilient and always reach a consistent level that is no worse and might even be better than last year. In recent years Tipperary have been unable to match that consistency and intensity and have worryingly drifted from hot to cold since the Munster campaign.

Their hot can beat Kilkenny, their cold won’t.

It doesn't need to be boiling point to win, but it can’t be cold and their greater goal-scoring threat might just get them over the line.

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