Kilkenny and Tipperary prepare for latest chapter in fierce rivalry in National League final showdown
Allianz National Hurling League Division One final: Kilkenny v Tipperary (tomorrow, Nowlan Park, throw-in 3.30pm, live on TG4)
EVEN friendly matches between these two neighbours would be hammer-and-tongs, but they don’t do friendlies.
It doesn’t matter if it’s League or Championship, every game is a war, every broken ball is a battle and tomorrow’s NHL decider at Nowlan Park promises to be every bit as dramatic as the clashes that have preceded it and will follow it.
Former Kilkenny corner-back Mick Kavanagh won eight All-Irelands and four Allstars during his time in the black and amber jersey. He locked horns with the likes of Noel McGrath and Eoin Kelly in enough of these derbies to know exactly what we can expect this weekend.
Tipp forward Kelly was a former work colleague and Kavanagh admits with a laugh: “It used to get a bit awkward.
“Me, Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin and Eoin used to work together and you’d have great craic during the year but maybe not when it came round to the games.” But afterwards everything went back to normal.
“It’s a healthy rivalry in Kilkenny-Tipp,” said Kavanagh.
“They square up and play it hard, but there’s good respect off the field when the whistle is blown.”
Kavanagh says Kilkenny will be “hell bent” to win on home soil tomorrow and Tipp haven’t won at Nowlan Park for a decade.
“Both teams will be mad eager to win it and lay down a marker for the year ahead,” said the St Lachtain’s clubman who also won five National League titles with the Cats.
“Tipp are coming to Nowlan Park where their record wouldn’t be that strong and they’ll be looking to rectify that and get a win. Kilkenny probably wouldn’t have expected to be in a final a couple of weeks back after losing the first two games but they have got momentum since and suddenly the shackles are off and they’re playing with great confidence and style and flair.
“It’s kind of bonus territory for Kilkenny to be in and it’s a great opportunity to play a League final at home and playing against our rivals and neighbours should bring out the best in them. Brian Cody has always put an emphasis on winning matches be it in Leinster, the League or the All-Ireland series and it never did us any harm winning League titles.
“They’ll be hell bent on trying to win.”
As Kavanagh said, early League results were disappointing but Kilkenny go into tomorrow’s final on the back of a five-game winning streak. The Cats were out-gunned by Cork (the Rebels’ only win in 1A) in their opener and also lost by a goal when Clare arrived at Nowlan Park and went home with the points after a 2-18 to 1-19 win.
Beating Waterford was the start of an upturn in their fortunes and they went on to end their campaign with a one-point win over Tipp and a three-point success against Wexford. Then, in the knockout stages, Brian Cody’s men saw off Offaly at the quarter-final stage before overpowering Wexford in last Sunday’s semi-final.
“They are finding a nice bit of form,” said Kavanagh.
“They are showing a lot of the traits that Brian Cody wants from his sides – there is a huge spirit and a workrate and desire to win ball, chase ball and turnover ball.
“They seem to more tactically aware this year. Their distribution is better, they’re working the ball through the channels or off the shoulder or short at times and they’re not going route one, they’re mixing it up.
“A few wins back-to-back and a settled team has probably given younger players – like Enda Morrissey, Richie Leahy and James Maher - a bit of confidence too, so they’re not looking over their shoulder and they’re able to express themselves and play with a bit more freedom.”
Driven on by scores from the prolific Jason Forde, arguably the best forward in the country at present, Tipperary have also recovered smartly from an opening day loss.
The Premier men were surprised by early pacesetters Clare but beat Waterford, Wexford and Cork in Division 1A with their only other loss coming against Kilkenny who won the obligatory thriller 2-22 to 2-21 at their fortress Nowlan Park.
Goals from John McGrath and Michael Breen helped Tipp past Dublin at the League quarter-final stage and then, in the semi-final, Forde’s 2-11 saw Michael Ryan’s side overcome Limerick 2-31 to 1-31 after extra-time.
“When Kilkenny played Tipp in the League, Paraic Maher and Brendan Maher weren’t used and Jason Forde was left on the bench,” Kavanagh recalled.
“They’ll be bringing a full complement on Sunday and I would say they’ll be happy with what they’ve got out of the League. They’ve found a couple of new players and Forde has taken on a leadership role in the absence of Seamus Callinan and he’s in the form of his life.
“Tipp have an abundance of natural scoring forwards, the likes of John Maher and ‘Bubbles’ (John) O’Dwyer and Michael Breen has been a revelation up there as well, he’s had a great League at corner-forward. They are very strong and they have a lot of experience in the likes of Brendan and Paraic Maher and Ronan Maher is popping up with some wonderful scores from midfield.
“They have the knowhow to get scores out of nothing and Kilkenny have too so it’s going to be an intriguing battle and it’s hard to call because the final people might have expected was Wexford v Limerick.
“After last year’s disappointment in the League final against Galway, the pressure is more on Tipp to deliver. They never got their season back on track after that League final defeat.”
You have to go back 50 years for Tipp’s last victory over Kilkenny in a League decider. The Cats have won the last four starting with the 10-goal thriller in 2003 that finished 5-14 to 5-13 in favour of the Cats.
Kavanagh played in that game and he recalls the 2009 League final and the Liam MacCarthy Cup showdown later that year as two of the highlights of his career.
“The ’09 League final was the start of the intense rivalry with Tipp,” he said.
“They came out and took us on in the physical stakes and it was a rip-roaring contest but we got out by the skin of our teeth. It was a cracking game and that year we won the All-Ireland to go four in-a-row. Those two games that year are probably the highlights of my meetings with Tipp over the years. “You can never say they’re dull anyway, so expect fireworks and wonderful hurling.”
Paths to the final
Cork 1-24 Kilkenny 0-24
Kilkenny 1-18 Clare 2-18
Waterford 1-12 Kilkenny 1-20
Kilkenny 2-22 Tipperary 2-21
Kilkenny 0-22 Wexford 0-19
Quarter-final: Kilkenny 0-24 Offaly 1-19
Semi-final: Wexford 2-15 Kilkenny 1-27
Clare 1-21 Tipperary 0-19
Tipperary 1-20 Waterford 1-11
Tipperary 3-21 Wexford 1-21
Kilkenny 2-22 Tipperary 2-21
Tipperary 1-24 Cork 1-21
Quarter-final: Dublin 0-20 Tipperary 2-25
Semi-final: Tipperary 2-31 Limerick 1-31 (AET)
Previous NHL finals
2014: Kilkenny 2-25 Tipperary 1-27
2013: Kilkenny 2-17 Tipperary 0-20
2009: Kilkenny 2-26 Tipperary 4-17
2003: Kilkenny 5-14 Tipperary 5-13
1968: Tipperary 3-9 Kilkenny 1-13
1965: Tipperary 3-14 Kilkenny 2-8
1957: Tipperary 3-11 Kilkenny 2-7
1954: Tipperary 3-10 Kilkenny 1-4
1950: Tipperary 3-8 Kilkenny 1-10