These teams are virtually inseparable. I don’t believe this is going to be a match where one team doesn’t turn up or one team runs away with it. As evidenced by the league final – with largely the same two selections – there’s nothing between them: a mistake as players get tired or a stroke of genius is likely to prove the difference. In fact, this final couldn’t be better poised for a record third successive replay of hurling’s biggest day, although draws tend not to be that obvious.
This year’s league final was a genuine contest, very physical and with far greater intensity than last year’s between the same counties, which was more like old-style wrestlers going through the motions with each other for the entertainment of the crowd.
Kilkenny took their time this year to settle on a basic structure and were helped by lessons learned against Galway. In retrospect, there wasn't a huge amount of substance behind Galway's comeback during the drawn Leinster semi-final in Tullamore but it forced Kilkenny into changes. Even though further changes have been made throughout the summer that basic structure has remained. At times in the drawn Galway match Kilkenny had been superb but they got caught and as a result tweaked the system and became more defensive with Conor Fogarty coming in at midfield and, beside him, Richie Hogan curbing his sense of adventure.
The half forwards became more mindful of what was going on behind them, Colin Fennelly in particular, and Eoin Larkin worked back from the corner. This all proved its value in the semi-final against Limerick when they were holding out in the dying minutes.
The most impressive thing about Kilkenny in the semi-final was their hunger and work ethic. Even Richie Power and Henry Shefflin who came on as subs got in on the act, doing the hard slog of shutting down the opposition backs and at one stage forcing Richie McCarthy to turn back when Limerick were frantically pushing forward. All the same I've thought Kilkenny vulnerable all year and to an extent I still do but they are also proving very hard to beat. As well as the more secure system they're playing they have a star-studded bench to unload in the later stages of matches.
Tipperary's route to the final has been different. The early championship defeat has a different context now because it's clear that Limerick represented a huge challenge – as Kilkenny learned. The big match for Eamon O'Shea was the first qualifier against Galway. With 20 minutes to go they were dead and Jonathan Glynn was pulling the same trick he had pulled against Kilkenny.
Like in 2010 – for Aisake Ó hAilpín, read Glynn – Pádraic Maher moved out from full back. James Barry moved in. Séamus Callanan got goals and everything was back on track – although hardly anyone saw the train smashing through Cork the way it did. They're now on the up with serious momentum and it can't simply be because all of the teams they've played are no good.
There are still concerns and room for improvement among the forwards. From one to nine against Cork, Tipperary were outstanding but the warning for me was up front. Half of the forwards didn't score and the total was 2-11 from play – not exactly prolific in a match, which they absolutely dominated at half back and midfield and Cork totally conceded puck-outs. What happens tomorrow when they have to fight for contested deliveries?
One feature of this season has been that the teams winning midfield are winning matches. It's a hard area to call. Richie Hogan has been the outstanding individual while Kilkenny's defence benefits from Conor Fogarty's cover but Tipp have improved significantly. Shane McGrath's return to form has been sustained over the past two matches and James Woodlock has been winning ball all year, even if his use of it isn't always the best.
Midfield is hard to call but they need at least parity there against opponents who haven’t ended up second-best to anyone so far. The half backs though will be just as important for Tipperary. In all of the games that they’ve lost to Kilkenny their half backs have been in retreat.
Kilkenny’s defence will think – and they have every right to – “we’ve always managed to neutralise these forwards in the past so what’s going to change?” and the only significant thing that can change is the supply of ball.
If Tipp’s half backs can maintain their good form and get deliveries off the front foot, Pádraic Maher in particular, the forwards as experience shows will be a lot better and it will also facilitate freer movement – conditions in which they thrive and especially with a fine weather forecast.
The brilliance of TJ Reid and Richie Hogan was key to Kilkenny’s league final win and their form has largely held but Brian Cody’s team is no longer the scoring machine of old. With Reid, Colin Fennelly has been hugely influential in the forwards.
For the first time in four years Tipperary have real momentum coming into a game with Kilkenny and they operate better with confidence rather than with something to prove. They also like spoiling a party, as they did in 2010 and last month against Cork.
They’re in a dangerous mood and that could be just enough.