Rivalry will always matter to Tipperary and Kilkenny
By Cian O'Connell
Two Allianz Hurling League Division 1A points are the prize on offer, but when Tipperary and Kilkenny collide sub-plots always exist.
Leaving Croke Park last September was demanding for Kilkenny following Tipperary’s emphatic All Ireland Final triumph.
It meant the winter was spent wondering so when two early League defeats to Waterford and Clare followed, Kilkenny just knew a defiant display and, more importantly, a win had to be delivered when Cork rolled into Nowlan Park.
Former Kilkenny star Adrian Ronan was encouraged by how the striped team adapted. “They bounced back very well the last day, regardless of what the opposition brought to Nowlan Park Kilkenny had to find their mojo or their rhythm, and they did,” Ronan says. “All of the players showed a huge intent and a hunger that they didn't have in Ennis.
“Against Waterford we were very unlucky, Waterford were very good, we were reasonably good, and it was only a one score game. Against Clare we looked, I suppose, tired or off the pace, but that changed considerably last Sunday, regardless of how good or bad the opposition was.”
The enduring search for fresh, new talent continues, but Ronan is optimistic about Kilkenny’s short term future too. “From the last three or four years Kilkenny have the nucleus of 10 or 12 from those teams that will start in the Championship,” is Ronan’s assessment.
“Kilkenny and Brian Cody have to find seven or eight lads that he can trust. Four or five will start, four or five will come on, it is that simple. That experience has to be gained and found by Cody and the players. They have to gain that trust and it is a two way thing. They have to gain and he has to give it to them, the players are certainly there.
“Like for any young lad it takes time. Go back over the history of Kilkenny hurling, all hurlers in Cody's time had to give two or three years learning their trade before they were thrown in at the deep end. In this case Kilkenny have to do the same, they have to get time and they will get time.
“That doesn't mean we will be winning All Irelands straightaway, but we will certainly be competing for them and be as good as anybody. That is lesson number one: compete and be competitive, that will happen.”
Patience, though, will be necessary considering the class and craft of Kilkenny’s list of retirements. “They need time, but anyone that knows anything about hurling knows that you aren't going to replace Jackie Tyrell, Eoin Larkin, Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney, and Eddie Brennan easily, that is what is happening,” Ronan states.
“We won two All Irelands in 2015 and 2014 that probably weren't expected by the Kilkenny public because we were going through transition there as well.”
A trip to Tipp is always enough to focus Kilkenny minds according to Ronan. “There is always a Kilkenny and Tipp rivalry, it is probably the keenest rivalry in hurling,” Ronan admits.
"The Kilkenny Championship is just one of the toughest Championships I've ever been involved in."
“I suppose, to be fair to Kilkenny we have to accept a bit that we are going through a certain element of transition. Tipperary are clearly the team to beat because they have this so called panel of 23 or 24 players that they can trust. That is what you have to have to win an All Ireland.
“You have to have 23 lads that a management team can trust, Michael Ryan has that. Brian Cody has probably 15, but he is moulding the other seven or eight lads, that might take a week, it might take a month or it might take a year. On last Sunday's form it was a step in the right direction.”
Colm Bonnar, the ex Tipperary stalwart and current Carlow manager, is impressed with how the Premier County are in flying form in the three rounds of the League so far. “Scoring 27 or 28 points in the first week in March is phenomenal hurling really,” Bonnar says.
“Then again when you see Clare putting up 22 or 23 points, the standard of hurling and the striking has just gone out the roof really. Players skill levels have come up, the speed the ball is travelling, the tackling, everything is there.”
Having trained Ballyhale Shamrocks in Kilkenny Bonnar is well placed to offer an assessment on the future for the Cats too. “The Kilkenny Championship is just one of the toughest Championships I've ever been involved in,” Bonnar stresses about the high calibre of hurler that Kilkenny produces. “There is no quarter asked or given, it is dog eat dog, it is very tough and physical.
“Any player on any given day can beat another player, that is what is bred into them. You might have a TJ Reid, a Colin Fennelly, a Mike Fennelly or a Henry Shefflin, but they are going up against club Kilkenny players, who feel they can get the better of them. It is a very exciting Championship, it is very hard to win. Players can easily step-up.
“I know the Kilkenny team that won the four in a row, they were just an exceptional bunch, they were so far ahead of the posse. They will probably become one of the greatest teams of all time. A lot of the players coming through now, they will be like all the other counties now, very good technically and physically. I think it is a more even game over the last two years anyway. Kilkenny can definitely hold their own. On any given day you wouldn't put your house on anyone against them.”
When Tipp were perched on the top of the hurling world in 2010, Kilkenny responded claiming four of the next five All Ireland titles. “I'm not sure if it was to do with Tipp going off the boil, I think it was more to do with the fact that Kilkenny were still a great team,” Ronan reflects. “People forget that.
“Kilkenny were beaten fairly and squarely on 2010, but that was still a great team. The people that played will be remembered in hurling circles for years to come.
“Certainly the Tipp lads were younger and more inexperienced, now they are older and more experienced, of course they are. It would be unfair to say that those young Tipp lads weren't ready to perform, they were. They just happened to be meeting the best team of all time. Now, it is funny the roles have reversed completely because now the Tipp team in 2017 are similar to the Kilkenny team of 2011.
“They are a good, experienced team, they haven't as many All Irelands, but they certainly have the experience of playing at the top for the last few years.”
Bonnar feels the intelligent manner in which Michael Ryan is operating is assisting Tipperary, who want to retain Liam MacCarthy for the first time since 1965. “Tipp seem to be holding all the aces, they have four or five players to come back,” Bonnar remarks.
“They are looking at another four or five in the League and they found four or five last year. Mick Ryan really has them in a good place in that they weren't allowed to get ahead of themselves after winning the All Ireland Final last year. There is such competition for places that players are having to prove themselves week in, week out. If you don't do the business one week or take an opportunity there is another player waiting to take a chance. They have a lot of strength in depth which is keeping the quality up.
“It looks like Tipp, at the moment they are playing the best hurling, but it is a long way until the middle of June, July, and August when the knockout Championship starts to come along. At the moment they are definitely the best team in the country, they are the All Ireland champions, and it is something Tipp people are looking at - can they do it back to back? It is something we haven't been able to do since the early 1960s.
"With the talent they have I don't think they are going to waste it. Mick Ryan will want to capitalise on it to drive them on, and I think they will be there or thereabouts.”
A familiar foe, Kilkenny, will be on the premises too.