Even by the standards of the genre, Kilkenny’s post-half-time destruction of Dublin last Saturday was a pretty gruesome sight. The game was a coin toss and then it wasn’t, Ger Cunningham’s side left spinning like a weather-cock in a gale as Kilkenny stuck 1-8 on them between the 36th minute and the 50th. It was like watching your favourite heavy-metal band play a classic set - it didn’t matter that you’d seen it before, it still blew you away.
Contrast it with Tipperary coming out after half-time four weeks ago against a Cork side they'd already beaten. They went in 0-14 to 0-5 ahead and extended the lead by two soon after. But then they downed tool and didn't score for another quarter of an hour. Cork stitched the next points four on the bounce and would have made it five if Patrick Horgan had tapped over a close-in free instead of killing their momentum with a weak shot for a goal.
A fair comparison? Maybe not. There’s a big difference between charging out for the second half with a one-point lead and trooping out up by nine, after all. But as the accompanying table shows, Tipp’s drop-off in Thurles was just as familiar as Kilkenny’s turbo charge in Portlaoise.
"To win an All-Ireland, Tipp need to iron out that 15 minutes after the break," says Eoin Kelly. "How often do they go in at half-time with the game probably more or less won but then find themselves having to kick on again with 20 minutes left? It has to be that they rest on their laurels, even sub-consciously. But how often do Kilkenny rest on their laurels?"
The numbers are pretty stark. Going back to the start of the 2014 championship, Tipp have played 11 championship games. Only twice in that time have they "won" the 15 minutes after the break - against Cork in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final and against Limerick in Munster that year.
They’ve “lost” that spell by four points or more on five occasions. The quality of the opposition hasn’t particularly mattered. Offaly, Cork, Dublin and Limerick last year were ultimately well outclassed but still Tipp laboured against them early in the second half. The Kilkenny way of killing games off in the third quarter just hasn’t been their bag.
And, be in no doubt, it is the Kilkenny way. In 12 games covering the same period, Kilkenny have ‘won’ that 15-minute spell 10 times. They’ve ‘lost’ it only once - against Limerick in that epic All-Ireland semi-final in 2014. Even allowing for the fact that 15-minutes is probably an arbitrary length of time to focus in on, it has happened too many times to be an accident.
“That’s what is separating Kilkenny from the others,” says Kelly. “And it’s vividly separating them, still. You look at Tipperary against Cork - they had them beaten at half-time, the game was over. But there was still that 15 minutes after half-time where Cork came with a few scores. Tipp still had the bit of class to go on and kick on when Cork thought they might be able to make a game of it. But it took Cork getting that few scores to make them shake a leg.
“You saw the same thing in this fixture last year against Limerick. Tipp went in six or seven points up and then in the 15 minutes after half-time, Limerick had a spell where they could have put 2-4 on the board. They actually only got 1-2 out of it but there was no doubt they were on top for that critical spell.
"Tipp took off eventually and pulled away handy enough but those 15 minutes have to be something that Michael Ryan won't want to have on Sunday and won't want to have for the rest of the championship."
Like it or not, the contrast in numbers fits in with the caricature of the two teams. This Kilkenny team isn't like the ones from the late-noughties, where Eddie Brennan and Henry Shefflin would go hunting for goals from the throw-in and try to get their business done early. They often go in with the game in the balance, maybe even behind.
But regardless of the half-time score, they haven’t once been behind on 50 minutes. When they come out after the break, they come out with ravenous intensity and relentless physicality. Functional? Ain’t nothing wrong with functional when it’s done at a speed that stops the opposition functioning.
As for Tipp? Loads of skill, loads of scores. But there’s still that trust factor when the temperature rises. Deliberately or not, they too often look inclined to sit on a lead. Or to readily accept the fact that the other crowd came to play too. In Kilkenny’s world, only one team gets that allowance.
Kelly has played against them and watched them wipe clean whatever notions their opposition come out with. As much as any part of their game, it’s a mentality thing. Anyone can mutter “Next Ball” to themselves. Kilkenny mean it.
“Every team will get a spell where they’ll get a run on you,” he reckons. “But you can’t just sit back during it and go, ‘Well they’re bound to have their spell but it’ll be over in eight or nine minutes and we’ll get going again.’ If a team gets two or three scores in a row on Kilkenny, they savage you for the next ball. They just don’t accept that every team will get a run on you.
“I think that’s the difference. Most teams are willing to go, ‘Ah, this is their purple patch. We’ll see it out.’ But it’s nearly like the Law Of Attraction - you bring it onto you if you think like that. Kilkenny don’t allow that, plain and simple.
“Sometimes, it can be down to what goes on in the dressing room at half-time. Whatever it is in Kilkenny’s dressing room, they come out with a clean slate and they attack the game like they want to go and win it right there and then. You have to be looking at how you use your time together during the break. It’s crucial that you come back out focussed for that spell after the break.”
It could be a while before this matters, of course. Tipp and Kilkenny might not meet all year, after all. But if and when they do, it’s factor worth keeping mind. In the All-Ireland final and replay of 2014, Tipp went in ahead by two points at the break both times. The turnaround was six points in the drawn game and four in the replay. They will be forewarned but it remains to be seen if that means forearmed.
As for tomorrow, Kelly is confident for that Tipp’s superior conditioning will see them through.
“In my career going to the Gaelic Grounds, you only ever got out of it by one score. It’s not an easy place to go, ever. But what I liked about Tipperary there last year was the aggression they showed. Seamie Callanan got busted and lost a few teeth but within minutes he was on the sideline bouncing and springing to get back in. If they come with that again, I have no doubt Tipp will win.”