Time for Tipperary to step up to the final plate
Ryan’s team need to lay down a marker to an improving Kilkenny in Nowlan Park
Tipperary’s Ger Browne and Kilkenny’s Cillian Buckley during the Division 1A league clash at Nowlan Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Allianz Hurling League Final Kilkenny v Tipperary, 3.30, Nowlan Park [Live, TG4]
On a sunny afternoon, temporarily disrupting the apocalyptic weather that would characterise the Allianz Hurling League season, Michael Ryan was happy enough with the one-point defeat by Kilkenny in Nowlan Park.
Disappointed to lose, of course, but he was glad to have road-tested some more playing options in a challenging environment and sufficiently attached to the experiment not to break the glass on his replacements bench and summon the assistance of Pádraic Maher and Noel McGrath.
At the same time, a victory that afternoon might have been worth something in the context of Sunday’s final and might have even have complicated Kilkenny’s progress in that direction.
Now Tipp are back at the same venue for a renewal of a rivalry that will be played out for the ninth time in 10 years of national finals, for a balance sheet of just two wins and six defeats.
A year ago, Ryan and his team had reached the same stage of the spring competition and were on the verge of making a serious statement about their intentions to rewrite the county’s 50-year tradition of failing to build on All-Ireland success in the following season.
Instead the team that actually would dominate 2017, Galway, annihilated them and Tipp’s season never recovered.
Tipperary’s management has spent the league developing playing options – to what effect won’t become obvious until the championship – but this weekend Tipperary could do with simply winning the silverware.
Kilkenny have been involved in rebuilding a team rather than simply developing options and results have been encouraging. As has often been the case with Brian Cody’s teams, the graduates to senior aren’t always the most obvious but they are likely to be the hardest-working and best disposed to learning.
Maintaining that ethic has been central to the process and no team looked more committed in the divisional matches.
There has also been a change of emphasis with a more deliberate, passing game out of defence and precisely-placed ball into the forwards. The old physical dominance that allowed puck-outs to be hit anywhere is no longer there and Kilkenny have been plotting their way through this new environment.
Wexford – surprisingly – were undone by it in last week’s semi-final but – equally surprisingly – in the quarter-final, Offaly proved more robust with their forwards’ working incredibly hard to complicate any attempts to walk the ball out of defence to within range of the Kilkenny attack. Tipp will go orthodox and in a 14-on-14 deployment there won’t be spare defenders to direct operations, as Cillian Buckley has been doing so effectively.
Kilkenny’s attack has been backboned by TJ Reid and Walter Walsh but with some enthusiastic rookies, notably Martin Keoghan, converted from an under-age centre back.
They will have been considerably cheered by the amount of space Limerick found in the Tipperary defence in last weekend’s other semi-final. A friend in attendance compared it to the acreage Tipp tilled in the 2016 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny.
In that context, they benefited considerably from the litany of missed chances that Limerick compiled and which left them chasing the game – albeit impressively – for an hour and a half.
It’s safe to say that if that space doesn’t contract, Kilkenny won’t be long taking advantage.
There was however a counter-balance to all of this in that Tipperary showed absolutely phenomenal economy at the other end and went in ahead at half-time thanks to a near 100 per cent (12 from 13) conversion rate. On the basis that that those sort of figures don’t constitute a viable game-plan, they’ll have to tighten up at the back and presumably having been forewarned last week, they will do so.
It has however been the team’s attack that has dominated league displays this season. Top scorers with an average per match in the late 20s (allowing for extra time in the semi-final), they have been getting astoundingly productive displays from Jason Forde, entrusted with the scoring burden in Séamus Callanan’s absence.
With Kilkenny there’s never a question mark over motivation; every match is there to be won. Tipperary though need to win this. It’s all well and good to ascribe the trail of disappointments in this fixture as by and large a reflection of their opponents being simply better in most of the time but that advantage has switched.
With a far stronger hand available to him than in February – when aside from the celebrity bench, Forde and John McGrath were playing Fitzgibbon and John O’Dwyer had not yet returned – Ryan will fancy his chances of laying down a marker both to Kilkenny and in advance of the Munster championship.
It won’t be straightforward. Cody’s team may lack the stardust of old but they have work rate, a decent structure and some quality players – all the more reason why Tipp have to make it happen.