Tipperary must find way to cope with Kilkenny's savage intensity
BEFORE Limerick played Kilkenny three weeks ago, much of the narrative beforehand focussed on Limerick’s perceived new authority as hurling’s new sheriffs, the gun-slingers who could also physically boss hurling’s terrain.
There was a time when it would have been inconceivable to believe that Kilkenny might struggle in a dogfight in the middle third but Limerick had developed into such a powerful force that they’d pushed Kilkenny around like rag-dolls when the sides met in Nowlan Park back in February.
The league is always different to the championship. Kilkenny are always a different animal in Croke Park but Limerick still thought that they were ready for the onslaught three weeks ago. They weren’t.
“We knew the level they could bring but they over-exceeded that level in our heads,” said Kyle Hayes in a podcast this week. “They bullied Cork and we knew there was a danger of that happening to us. We tried to prepare for it but they brought a storm and it took us a while to get used to it.”
Kilkenny’s modern history has been defined as much by their refusal to yield, to any team, as their success, and that was the hallmark of their victory against Limerick.
Their display that afternoon was clever and tactical but it was still governed by old school values; hit them hard and early, hunt the opposition down like dogs, pen them back into their own half, and slaughter them in the air, particularly on puck-outs.
Limerick’s conversion rate of 50 per cent will haunt them, not just because so many of those missed chances were atypical of this team, but even more so when compared with Kilkenny’s conversion rate of 67 per cent.
Kilkenny’s work-rate was so savage and intense in that middle third that they trusted themselves to win the numerical mis-matches but it also allowed the Kilkenny defence, especially their half-back line, to sit, rarely venturing beyond their own 65-metre line.
Kilkenny had more possessions in total (168-162) over the 70-plus minutes but despite Limerick creating more scoring chances (35-29) they were still caught in a dual bind; they couldn’t get their full-forward line (especially Aaron Gillane) on the ball enough while they couldn’t run the ball enough through the Kilkenny trenches in the middle third.
Tipp will have to go to war with Kilkenny now again tomorrow but they’ll also have to try and win the mental battle. When the sides met in the league in Thurles in February, Kilkenny were ahead by four points after 45 minutes before Tipperary got a run on their arch-rivals and began to press their boot hard on Kilkenny’s throat.
Over the following 20 minutes, Tipperary created 11 scoring chances to Kilkenny’s two. When Tipp had edged ahead by 0-15 to 0-13 with just five minutes of normal time remaining, the game was firmly within their control. Tipp were playing with a swagger and confidence and had built up a seemingly irresistible momentum. And Kilkenny still managed to wrestle it back off them.
Another defeat to Kilkenny six months ago underlined how hard Tipp still find it to beat their greatest rivals this decade. In their 18 league and championship meetings since the 2010 All-Ireland final, Tipperary have won just three of those games.
That 2010 All-Ireland final was expected to be a turning point in the relationship, but it wasn’t because Kilkenny continued to dominate it.
Tipp’s 2016 All-Ireland final victory though, was deemed to be more of a landmark moment than the 2010 final win. After appearing to shove Kilkenny into a shallow grave that afternoon, Tipp were expected to keep trampling down on Kilkenny ever since. But they haven’t – Tipp have failed to beat Kilkenny in their four (albeit league) meetings in the meantime.
Apart from the physicality and intensity Kilkenny always bring, their composure and decision-making under pressure have been defining factors in their modern history with Tipperary.
Kilkenny will play on that again now - but is that really a factor for Tipperary any more? Many of the questions that would have been asked of Tipperary prior to the Wexford match were firmly answered in the last 20 minutes three weeks ago, when Tipp were trailing by five points, and reduced to 14 men, but they still found a way.
Those questions had been lingering since the Munster final, when Tipp were bossed and bullied and outclassed by Limerick. The doubts re-surfaced after the All-Ireland quarter-final against Laois but Tipp blew them away when the need was greatest against Wexford.
The sending-off allowed Tipp to create that extra space in their attack but the way in which Tipp were able to run the ball in the second half, with forwards peeling off into pockets and defenders finding men in space, was the most graphic illustration of how different this team is from 12 months ago.
Tipp players stood up everywhere. The Tipp half-back line of Brendan, Padraic, and Ronan Maher were immense, having a combined 34 possessions, and winning a combined 11 puck-outs, with Ronan Maher securing five of those.
Noel McGrath was brilliant too, having more possessions than anyone else (20), scoring four points from five shots, and having another scoring assist.
Seamus Callanan also showcased his genius and leadership qualities again; from just seven plays, Callanan scored 1-2 and had a hand in three more points.
The Tipperary bench also made a massive contribution. Prior to the All-Ireland semi-final, the Tipp bench had contributed just 0-4 in six games but Jake Morris, Willie Connors, Mark Kehoe, and Ger Browne matched that total in just 22 minutes.
Tipp ended with 1-28. If tomorrow is a high-scoring game, Tipp will win. Tipp have the greater fire-power but, once again, they have to prove that they can face down Kilkenny. And beat them.