Preview: All-Ireland SHC Final - Tipperary v Kilkenny
All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final
Tipperary v Kilkenny, Croke Park, 3.30pm
By John Harrington
The scales seem evenly balanced between Tipperary and Kilkenny coming into Sunday’s All-Ireland Final.
Both teams will have been energised by stirring semi-final victories and know what winning All-Ireland Finals is all about so it’s hard to see how either has an emotional advantage coming into the match.
Tactically, they set up slightly differently, but they’re both very comfortable in their respective systems and it’s hard to see either sideline outwitting the other in any dramatic fashion or throwing a curve-ball the other doesn’t see coming.
Like previous All-Ireland Finals between Tipperary and Kilkenny so, this one is likely to be defined by the individual match-ups.
Both managements are likely to make one or two changes to their selected teams before throw-in, but it’s still possible to make an educated guess on what momst of those match-ups will be.
Priority number one for both teams will be to neutralise the opposition’s key forward. For Kilkenny, that’s TJ Reid. For Tipperary, that’s Seamus Callanan.
The two team captains have been absolutely immense all year and are the two likeliest match-winners going into Sunday’s match.
Callanan is the Championship’s top scorer from play with a tally of 7-16 from seven matches played.
Reid has hit 3-11 in seven, but is far more than just a finisher. He didn’t score from play in the All-Ireland semi-finals and quarter-finals, but was still the best player on the pitch thanks to his ability get on the ball and win frees or create for others.
It’s a near certainty that Tipperary’s Brendan Maher will be detailed to man-mark Reid because he’s done the same job on the opposition’s best forward throughout the campaign and gotten the better of players like Tony Kelly, Austin Gleeson, Aaron Gillane, and Rory O’Connor.
Maher would be comfortable following Reid wherever he roams, even if that is into full-forward, because he effectively played as a full-back for Tipperary in the Munster Final when he was up against Gillane and was Tipp’s best player on what was a very tough day for their defence.
Both Maher and Reid are very much spiritual leaders of their teams as well as being brilliant hurlers, so if either can decisively win this battle it would be a huge fillip for their team and, conversely, a psychological blow for the opposition.
At the other end of the field, Huw Lawlor is almost certainly going to be the man to mark Seamus Callanan.
He’s in his rookie Championship season and maiden All-Ireland Final so that’s a lot of responsibility to place on his young shoulders, but he’s already proven this year he’s a seriously good hurler.
He has the aerial ability to cope with Callanan's strength under the high ball, and possibly has half a yard of pace on the Tipperary veteran when they're required to sprint towards angled deliveries.
But it’s still a major ask for him to contain Tipperary’s captain in the form that Callanan is in, and it’ll be a damage limitation exercise if he’s as exposed as Joey Holden was in the 2016 All-Ireland Final.
Holden himself is likely to be detailed to mark John McGrath on Sunday, and that’ll be another interesting battle.
McGrath’s form has tailed off since his brilliant performance against Clare in the Munster Championship, but he’ll surely be fired on Sunday to atone for his red-card in the All-Ireland semi-final.
The other defensive match-ups from a Kilkenny point of view will likely see Paul Murphy stick to Jason Forde, while the Kilkenny half-backs will hold their positions and mark whoever comes their way.
When the ball is throw in on Sunday, that’s likely to mean Conor Fogarty v Niall O’Meara, Padraig Walsh v John O’Dwyer, and Paddy Deegan v Dan McCormack.
What’s less predictable is how the Tipperary defenders will match up against the Kilkenny attack.
The second priority after limiting TJ Reid’s influence will be to put Colin Fennelly under lock and key.
But it should probably be a cause of concern for Tipperary supporters that you couldn’t say with any certainty who their full-back will be on Sunday.
In fact, the only guarantee about their full-back line as a whole is that Cathal Barrett will be in it, so take whatever Tipp team is named with a pinch of salt because there are likely to be late changes in defence like there was before the All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford.
James Barry is the most natural full-back in the Tipp panel, but looks a little short of form and confidence at the moment.
Ronan Maher was inspirational on the edge of the square for most of the match against Wexford and would have the strength and aerial ability to go toe to toe with Fennelly, but you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul if you take him out of the half-back line.
For the All-Ireland semi-final Liam Sheedy drafted in two natural half-backs in the shape of Barry Heffernan and Seamus Kennedy to counter Wexford’s system of play, but against a more orthodox Kilkenny he may bring back in a corner-back like Alan Flynn.
If he decides to stick with the team that defeated Kilkenny, then chances are that Ronan Maher will mark Colin Fennelly, Heffernan will mark Walter Walsh, and Seamus Kennedy will mark Adrian Mullen.
That would leave Padraic Maher on John Donnelly, but you’d imagine he will be a ‘cheat-sweeper’ and sit deep to protect the full-back line even if that means allowing Donnelly hit a couple of points from range.
Whoever they eventually pick in their back six and however they set up, it’s surely not ideal for Tipperary not to have a settled defence coming into an All-Ireland Final.
The other key battle to look out for on Sunday is Noel McGrath’s with Conor Browne.
McGrath has scored 1-18 and assisted 2-19 in seven Championship matches and is the creative fulcrum of this Tipperary team.
Browne’s mission will be to limit his influence and he’s certainly a very tenacious operator, but he’s still very inexperienced and it’ll be a big ask for him to dominate one of the greatest hurlers of the last decade.
Also, if you're looking for a less heralded player to have a big game on Sunday, Michael Breen is capable of scoring heavily from midfield too and could profit if Kilkenny focus too heavily on McGrath.
In the final analysis, the more suffocating a contest that Kilkenny can make it then the more it will suit them.
Their half-backs are stronger under high ball than the Tipperary half-forwards, so the mission will be to force the Tipperary defence to clear under pressure rather than have the time to pick out their men with short, snappy deliveries with a low altitude trajectory.
Kilkenny dominated the physical exchanges against Limerick and they will back themselves to do so again on Sunday, but you can be sure too that Liam Sheedy will have his players seriously fired up to silence all this talk about Kilkenny having Tipp’s number whenever a game is ‘brought into the trenches’, as Jackie Tyrrell put it this week.
If Tipperary do meet that aggression head on in the middle third and Colin Fennelly doesn’t bag a couple of goals, then the Premier County’s greater creativity and scoring power could give them a vital edge.
Tipperary have named an unchanged team for Sunday's encounter at Croke Park. Manager Liam Sheedy has kept faith with the same starting XV which defeated Wexford at the penultimate stage.
Kilkenny make one change from the XV which started against Limerick. The experienced Cillian Buckley returns in place of Richie Leahy, who is included in the Kilkenny substitutes.
TIPPERARY: Brian Hogan; Cathal Barrett, Barry Heffernan, Ronan Maher; Brendan Maher, Padraic Maher, Seamus Kennedy; Noel McGrath, Michael Breen; Dan McCormack, John O'Dwyer, Niall O'Meara; Jason Forde, Seamus Callanan, John McGrath.
KILKENNY: Eoin Murphy; Paul Murphy, Huw Lawlor, Joey Holden; Conor Fogarty, Padraig Walsh, Paddy Deegan; Conor Browne, Cillian Buckley; John Donnelly, TJ Reid, Walter Walsh; Adrian Mullen, Colin Fennelly, Richie Hogan.