All-Ireland SHC Final
Tipperary v Kilkenny, Croke Park, 3.30pm (RTE & Sky)
By John Harrington** **
There should be few secrets between Tipperary and Kilkenny considering they’ve gone toe to toe in Championship hurling on seven occasions in the last seven years.
But when it comes to gauging the likely winner of Sunday’s All-Ireland Final, there are still enough grey areas to make it an imprecise science.
For a start, both teams have undergone considerable surgery since they last met in the 2014 All-Ireland Final replay.
Kilkenny have lost JJ Delaney, Richie Power, and Henry Shefflin to retirement, Michael Fennelly is ruled out by injury, and Jackie Tyrrell is no longer an automatic first-choice starter.
Tipperary have had their own retirees in Shane McGrath, James Woodlock, Lar Corbett, and Conor O’Mahony, while others like Paddy Stapleton, Kieran Bergin, and Gearóid Ryan are panelists now rather than first-choice picks.
When you change a third of your team then the sum of your parts adds up to a different number for better or for worse, so this Kilkenny-Tipperary equation cannot be solved by simply poring over results already posted in the ledger.
Things we don't know include: Can Joey Holden handle Seamus Callanan? Is Michael Breen ready to go to war with a seasoned veteran like Conor Fogarty? Can the best corner-back in the country, Paul Murphy, quieten the best young corner-forward in the country, John McGrath? Can the inexperienced Liam Blanchfield put quality performances back to back? Is Seamus Kennedy capable of containing TJ Reid? Is Ronan Maher ready for the unique challenge of marking Richie Hogan?
Perhaps the greyest area of all, certainly from a Kilkenny perspective, is the actual XV they will pick and the positioning of the players within it.
Brian Cody proved in the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Waterford that he’s not averse to naming dummy teams, so whichever team they announce on Friday night is best taken with a pinch of salt.
In Michael Fennelly’s absence the most obvious switch to make would be to bring in Kieran Joyce at centre-back and to release Conor Fogarty from that position back to his more familiar midfield home.
Joyce has performed well against Tipperary centre-forward Patrick Maher in the past, most notably the 2014 All-Ireland Final replay, but Maher is looking fitter and sharper this year than he did then.
There also a chance too that Tipperary might try to unbalance Kilkenny by placing Noel McGrath at centre-forward where his ability to drift into space and pick off points from distance might trouble a centre-back like Joyce who likes to sit deep and protect his full-back line.
Tipp may have to deal with a similar situation at the other end of the field if Richie Hogan starts centre-forward. He loves nothing more than toward moving out into his favourite pocket of space on the left-hand side of midfield and shooting points from range.
In that scenario Ronan Maher will have to decide whether to stick and protect his full-back line, or twist and stay tight to Hogan to limit his influence, but in the process leave his full-back line exposed.
The likelihood is that Tipp will try to leave their back six as structured as possible and give Brendan Maher the onus of picking up Hogan when he moves out to middle of the field.
How Kilkenny use TJ Reid is the other big variable in their selection. He did really well in an unfamiliar midfield role in the All-Ireland Semi-Final replay against Waterford, but in the past Brian Cody has liked to target inexperienced opposition defenders in All-Ireland Finals with his best forwards.
If the Kilkenny manager stays true to those instincts, it would be no surprise to see Reid move onto Championship rookie Seamus Kennedy with Lester Ryan coming in at midfield to partner Fogarty.
As for Tipperary, their only selection dilemma is whether or not to start John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer. It wouldn’t be a massive surprise were he not to be named in the Tipp team only to then be parachuted in from the start if the Tipp management were of the mind to try and gain any smidgen of surprise element they can.
O’Dwyer’s former team-mate Lar Corbett suggested this week that the Killenaule man would be best used as a high-impact substitute, but surely it makes more sense to start an All-Ireland Final with your very best team.
The Kilkenny full-back line would certainly love to see O’Dwyer sitting on the bench for the throw-in and you can be sure Brian Cody would never dream of holding a marquee forward like Colin Fennelly or Richie Hogan in reserve if they were fit to play. It should be just as unthinkable for Tipperary to keep O’Dwyer in ‘Bubbles wrap’.
As Tipperary manager Michael Ryan himself admitted recently, the common thread that ties together Tipperary’s four Championship defeats to Kilkenny since 2010 is their inability to match the work-rate and general intensity of Brian Cody’s team.
They’ve consistently come second-best in the hook, block, and tackle count, and if that happens again on Sunday then they’ll be beaten again.
On the basis of the respective performances of both teams in their All-Ireland Semi-Finals, Kilkenny have to go into the match as favourites. They reached a significantly higher level of intensity in their replay against Waterford than Tipperary managed in their one-point win over Galway.
Tipperary will have to bridge that gap, but they have been playing with a more noticeable physical edge this year than in previous campaigns, so it is within their scope to do so.
If their half-backs, midfield, and half-forwards manage to at least break even in terms of the amount of ball they win, then the finishing power of inside forwards like Seamus Callanan, John McGrath, and O’Dwyer could be enough to shoot them to victory.
But if Kilkenny squeeze the life out of Tipp in that battle-zone like that have in the past, then they'll win a third All-Ireland Final in a row.
So while there are a lot of grey areas when you measure these teams against each other, this match will ultimately be decided by the greatest black and white sporting differential of all - work-rate.