GAA Football

Too much 'if' about Tipperary to look past dependable Cats

Kilkenny and Tipperary will meet on Sunday in what will be their seventh All-Ireland final clash since 2009. Picture by Colm O'Reilly

All-Ireland SHC final: Tipperary v Kilkenny (Sunday, 3.30pm, Croke Park, live on RTÉ2 and Sky Sports Arena)

IF Noel McGrath gets free. If their forwards show up. If they get decent ball. If Barry Heffernan can slot in at full-back. If Pádraic Maher can stifle TJ Reid. Nothing sums up Tipperary like the word ‘if’.

Kilkenny are the dependables. You know with absolute conviction what’s coming from a Brian Cody side. Even when they were outclassed in the 2016 final, they fought like dogs. After 41 minutes, they found a goal to go ahead.

Their defensive setup undermined them that day but three years on, this is a much more solid looking unit.

They have an indescribably talented number 11 in TJ Reid, and enough elsewhere to do.

Line the two sides out 15 v 15 and everyone plays close to their potential - Tipperary would end the summer as champions. In terms of sheer quality, their forward line is better than Kilkenny’s to the point where it wouldn’t matter what happened at the other end.

And make no mistake, even though this generation has known nothing other than Kilkenny in finals, Tipperary would far rather this than to be playing Limerick.

The green monster that came to Croke Park with its widened jaws and licked lips was turned away from the successive All-Irelands that seemed a certainty when you saw them on Munster final day.

Tipperary’s forwards couldn’t win a ball. Slacker, slower and slighter, it turned into such a disaster that you could conceive no way for them to win if they were to come in against the same challenge in late August.

Now they don’t have to. If Tipperary win tomorrow, it will be embalmed by the sense that in taking Limerick out of the equation, Kilkenny have done Liam Sheedy’s men a huge favour.

The Cats brought a whole new level to their semi-final. At times in the second half they were like a matador that found somehow summoned the strength to escape from in against the wall as the raging ball snarled and scraped the turf.

The entire thing was founded on an absolutely manic desire to team up the script. Each time it seemed certain that Limerick would get level and take the control that they threatened to, TJ Reid or Adrian Mullen or Colin Fennelly would scribble a different ending.

Reid is absolutely central to their hopes of winning the All-Ireland, and Brendan Maher stifling him is essential for Tipp. The entire game seems to rest on that battle.

The Ballyhale man is on the cusp of a second Hurler of the Year title. He has 5-72 to his name this summer, including 3-12 from play off just 20 shots.

He hasn’t registered from play in the last two games but his workrate still earned him man of the match against Limerick. Reid is their primary target for puckouts, he’s the man they look to create goal chances, the one they want on the ball more than any other.

Maher will never shut him completely out of the game, but if he can reduce his impact by even 20 per cent, that could well be enough.

Adrian Mullen hit 0-4 in the semi-final but is likely to be up against Ronan Maher, whose form all summer has been colossal.

Padraic Maher had a fair bit of joy against Walter Walsh in the 2016 final and they’re likely to renew acquaintances. The big defensive worry is whether Barry Heffernan is built for an orthodox full-back role, where he looks likely to end up against Colin Fennelly.

If that does happen, Fennelly will know the goals are on. He could spend 69 minutes and 55 seconds doing nothing tomorrow, and yet still win the game with one instinctive movement.

Kilkenny will take the same template they applied to the semi-final and run it again. Their half-forward line will tuck in beside the half-backs on Brian Hogan’s puckouts. Tipp will need to either get serious joy off going short, or their half-forward line will need to give them something that hasn’t been there previously.

If Kilkenny swallow up all that ball, they’ll have succeeded in turning it into the dogfight they need it to be.

The pre-match narrative has been dominated mostly by Jackie Tyrrell, whose comments both from the last week and from his book ‘The Warrior’s Code’ have questioned Tipperary’s manhood.

It’s not a new preamble. The exact same talk dominated the build-up three years ago. Tipperary responded, with John McGrath leading from the front with his tackling. The pressure they put on allowed their quality to flourish.

The space they had, though. It was criminal. Joey Holden has done well to recover after being subjected to public torture, conceding 0-9 from play to Seamus Callanan.

If there is only one certainty before this game, it’s that Kilkenny will not allow that to happen again. Padraig Walsh will drop off. And despite ending up at this stage again, Tipperary’s attacking play has not been at the levels they’re capable of.

Against Wexford it was very poor for long stages, but when it was really needed, they got their joy from further out – and by bringing Callanan to half-forward – in order to turn a five-point deficit around.

It was a stunning finish with a man short, though it was built on their middle third rather than a flick of a switch up front. It ought to have the eternally damning answered questions about the contents of their gut. Still they persist.

Tipperary have proven enough times that they have it in them to step up and meet that workrate for a day, not least against Kilkenny.

Huw Lawlor has done well all summer at full-back for the Cats but the top forwards, namely Pat Horgan and Aaron Gillane, have given him enough trouble to suggest he’ll do well to lock down Callanan.

Walsh will lend a hand, while Cillian Buckley’s expected return to the half-back line will probably see Conor Fogarty move to midfield and strengthen them again.

Never would an All-Ireland have looked so unlikely in early July and yet seemed so natural by late August. In all his years, it would be Cody’s greatest trick yet.

There’s just too much ‘if’ to ever place your full faith in Tipp.

Kilkenny by two.

* * * * * * * *

Man of the moment
Seamus Callanan
THERE’S no shortage of individual discourse to choose from, but given the history he has in this fixture and the undeniable sense that Seamus Callanan has carried the Tipperary attack a bit of recent weeks, the Premier captain is perhaps the game’s most pivotal figure. He was unmarkable in the 2016 game, as Joey Holden was left to try and compete with him in 50 yards of space. Callanan ended the day with 0-13, nine of them from play. It’s unthinkable that Kilkenny would give him the same room again tomorrow, but he has a habit of finding it where there is none. He has raised a green flag in every game this summer, and if he can do so again here then he could well be leading his team up to collect Liam MacCarthy.

Team talk
Tipperary (probable): B Hogan; C Barrett, B Heffernan, S Kennedy; P Maher, B Maher, R Maher; N McGrath, M Breen; D McCormack, J McGrath, N O'Meara; J Forde, S Callanan, J O'Dwyer
WHILE the general expectation is that Tipperary will go with the same team as in the semi-final win over Wexford, there are a couple of opportunities for Liam Sheedy to throw a flanker. Certainly throwing Jake Morris into the attack would give them a spark that hasn’t always been there in recent weeks. Whether it would be at the expense of Dan McCormack, who had a poor semi-final, or Michael Breen would determine how the shake-up might look. Their defence will see Barry Heffernan retained ahead of James Barry at number three.

Kilkenny (probable): E Murphy; P Murphy, H Lawlor, J Holden; C Fogarty, P Walsh, P Deegan; C Browne, R Leahy; J Donnelly, TJ Reid, W Walsh; A Mullen, C Fennelly, R Hogan
WITH Bill Sheehan more than likely to miss out because of a hamstring injury, there seems to be only one major decision for Brian Cody to make. Cillian Buckley has struggled with injury all summer but was on before half-time against Limerick and got through it alright. He might come into the side for Richie Leahy, which would lead to a slight reshuffle, with Buckley going to half-back and Conor Fogarty switching to midfield. Otherwise it will be as you were.

Tipperary tactical take
THE biggest issue for Tipp is how they win enough of their own ball to win the game. Their half-forward line, without any real standout physical presence, has struggled all summer under the dropping ball. If Kilkenny drop off the way they did against Limerick, Tipp will have opportunities to go short, but they’ll have to use them more cutely than simply to snatch 20 yards and then lace it on Padraig Walsh’s head anyway. The make-up of their defence is also uncertain. Barry Heffernan did a great tracking job on Lee Chin in the semi-final but Colin Fennelly is a much more orthodox number 14 and provides a different threat, and it’s one that Tipp don’t look to have a natural suitor for.

Kilkenny tactical take
WHEN the sides last met in the All-Ireland final three years ago, Kilkenny’s full-back line was hung out in acres of space. Seamus Callanan had the easiest of afternoons picking up lovely diagonal ball into the space. There’s no chance Brian Cody allows that to happen again. Pádraig Walsh will drop off from centre-back and on Tipperary’s puckouts, they’ll look to get their half-forward line back behind midfield and create a wall. That trio of TJ Reid, Walter Walsh and Adrian Mullen led the way against Limerick and if they can replicate the workrate they brought to the semi-final, Tipperary could find it a real struggle to get out past them.

Key battle
Brendan Maher v TJ Reid
WHERE hurling still has a real edge over football is in giving us titanic individual battles like this. It will be Maher v Reid, man-to-man for 70 minutes, and the winner of the battle could well dictate the war’s victor. Maher has done a number of big jobs right around the defence this year, picking up Aaron Gillane, Tony Kelly, Austin Gleeson and Rory O’Connor. His work so far will win him an Allstar. Reid’s semi-final display showed why he’s the leading contender for Hurler of the Year. He didn’t score from play, and he didn’t have to. The workrate, the leadership and the brilliance on dead-balls were still man-of-the-match material. It’s one thing keeping him off the scoresheet, another altogether keeping him and Kilkenny off the steps of the Hogan Stand.

Weather watch
THE sun is booked for an appearance in the early part of Sunday afternoon, though it might not stay on stage long enough to keep the rain backstage. But any wet weather is unlikely to be severe or have too great an impact.

Last championship meeting
2016 All-Ireland SHC final: Tipperary 2-29 Kilkenny 2-20
TIPPERARY peered into the hurt locker and finally embraced that most open of secrets as they outfought Kilkenny to lay the platform for a stunning All-Ireland success.
They never had a shortage of quality to win back Liam McCarthy, but they could never quite muster the absolute relentless insanity they needed over 70 minutes to beat their nemesis. Here, they found it
That this was the largest score ever conceded by a Brian Cody team in a Championship game gives one indication of how good the winners’ attack was.
Seamus Callanan’s 13-point haul was remarkable. He, John McGrath and John O’Dwyer racked up an astonishing 2-21 between them to claim a first title since 2010.
When Kevin Kelly flicked up to bat into an empty net six minutes into the second half, Kilkenny went 1-14 to 0-15 ahead, but Tipp quickly regathered themselves and went on to hit 1-7 in the next 10 minutes, laying the platform for success.
Tipperary: D Gleeson; C Barrett, J Barry, M Cahill; S Kennedy (0-1), R Maher, Pádraic Maher (0-1); B Maher, M Breen; D McCormack (0-1), Patrick Maher (0-2), N McGrath (0-1); J O’Dwyer (1-5, 0-1 free, 0-1 line ball), S Callanan (0-13, 0-3f, 0-1 65), J McGrath (1-3)
Subs: J Forde (0-2) for Breen (44), N O’Meara for McCormack (61), D Maher for Cahill (64), K Bergin for N McGrath (69), T Hamill for Kennedy (72)
Kilkenny: E Murphy; P Murphy, J Holden, S Prendergast; P Walsh (0-2), K Joyce, C Buckley (0-1); TJ Reid (0-11, 0-10 frees, 0-1 65), C Fogarty; W Walsh (0-1), R Hogan (1-1), E Larkin (0-2); K Kelly (1-2, 0-1 line ball), C Fennelly, L Blanchfield
Subs: L Ryan for Larkin (60), R Lennon for Joyce (60)
Referee: B Gavin (Offaly)

Who’s the ref?
James Owens
THE first man to get back-to-back All-Ireland finals in either hurling or football since Dickie Murphy did the deciders of 1997 and ’98. He’ll be glad that after all the furore about his appointment last year – and James McGrath’s subsequent resignation from the referees’ panel because he didn’t get it – this has been a much quieter build-up. It will be the Wexford man’s third final in all, having also been in the middle in 2015. Took charge of Kilkenny’s quarter-final win over Cork, but hasn’t refereed Tipp in championship yet this year.

Betting box
Tipperary 5/6
Draw 8/1
Kilkenny 11/8
Handicap
Tipperary (-1) Evs
Draw (-1) 10/1
Kilkenny (+1) 10/11
First goalscorer
Seamus Callanan 4/1
TJ Reid 7/1
Colin Fennelly 15/2
Worth a punt
A penalty to be scored 11/4

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