WHEN Kilkenny and Tipperary met in the league in Nowlan Park at the end of February, Tipp led for the majority of the match.
They played the better hurling for long stages but just when Tipp appeared set for a memorable victory, it evaporated in front of them during a frenetic few minutes before the final whistle.
Kevin Kelly delivered the deadly blows with goals in the 67th and 72nd minutes. It was a familiar result to a sequence of matches between the counties stretching back over five years.
It also extended a trend that had become agonising and painful. In their 12 league and championship meetings since the 2010 All-Ireland final, Kilkenny have won ten.
After that 2010 success, the future looked set to belong to Tipp. Kilkenny’s best days appeared behind them. That was the expectation until the Kilkenny machine started raging again. Kilkenny won four of the next five All-Irelands.
Tipp are still waiting for another title. What’s more, Tipp’s ambitions and yearning for greater glory has repeatedly been slaughtered and sacrificed on Kilkenny’s altar of domination.
The dynamic of the relationship has completely changed. Prior to 2002, one of the most extraordinary statistics in hurling was that Tipperary had only lost once to Kilkenny in the championship over the previous 80 years.
Now, Tipp have won only one of their last nine championship meetings in just 13 years. Three league final defeats in six seasons to their great rivals has also shovelled more salt into a gaping wound that Tipp cannot close.
In the second half, Tipp’s four key assassins – Seamus Callanan, John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer, Noel McGrath and Lar Corbett – were restricted to a combined 12 plays.
Mentally, Kilkenny have always felt they have had Tipp’s number, that they could get at certain Tipp players and hustle them out of their stride. The manner in which they felt some Tipp players overlooked Kilkenny’s legacy after the 2010 final added more poison on the tip of Kilkenny’s blade.
And Kilkenny have been slashing their face ever since.
The scars have always been evident. Tipp lead Kilkenny by 10 points in the 2014 league and ended up losing by six. The sequence of results suggests an inferiority complex and mental frailty but Tipp have still produced too much quality to distil the ongoing trend into that category.
“Being honest, the best hurling Tipperary do is against Kilkenny,” said Eoin Kelly in 2015. “If Tipp were afraid of them, that wouldn’t happen. The Tipperary dressing room loves the Kilkenny challenge.”
Failing to get over the line is still heavily intertwined with the mental strength and sense of mission that is required to beat Kilkenny.
Tipperary have the firepower to beat Kilkenny. Yet they had those guns in the past too and the basic reason they haven’t beaten Kilkenny is, apart from 2010, they have never worked as hard, especially their attack.
That issue still needs to be addressed. Of the 18 hooks-blocks-tackles made by the Tipp attack in the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway (including subs), 10 came from Dan McCormack and Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher.
McCormack made more plays (22) than any other Tipp player. McCormack has given Tipp something different. So has Seamus Kennedy and Michael Breen, and especially John McGrath. From a combined 58 plays in this championship, McGrath has scored 3-4 from play and been centrally involved in 11 more scores.
Many of those players have brought something different, a harder edge, to Tipperary, which has framed a large part of their new identity under Michael Ryan. Much of Tipp’s style now is based on the Kilkenny template; robust, physical, more direct, players are expected to win their own ball.
In Liam Sheedy’s time, Tipp had a target of hitting 13 balls into the full-forward line. In four games against Kilkenny between 2009-2012, Tipp averaged 15 balls into the full-forward line.
In the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, Tipp hit 14 long balls alone into the full-forward position. They only won four. The ball was more cultured, more precise, in Sheedy’s time. It will have to be too on Sunday.Tipp know how this works against Kilkenny. In that league meeting in February, Tipp played 44 long balls into their attack and won just 12 (27 per cent). They mined just seven scores from that possession. Tipp played just 10 short stick-passes over the 70 minutes.
Those kind of numbers will kill Tipp on Sunday, which is why they will need to mix their game up more, to play more around Kilkenny.
Brian Cody will also be planning now for what he saw from Tipp against Galway. TJ Reid will probably pitch up on Seamus Kennedy, Richie Hogan might move to centre-forward on Ronan Maher. Cody will see Walter Walsh as the perfect physical foil for Padraic Maher.
On top of those match-ups, Cody will want those influential players in the area where Tipp launch the most ball.
Putting Reid, Hogan and Michael Fennelly in the middle for the All-Ireland semi-final replay arrested the stranglehold Waterford had in that sector. Reid, Hogan and Fennelly had a combined 49 possessions. Fennelly though, is a huge loss now.
Waterford obliterated Kilkenny in hooks-blocks-tackles in the drawn game (52-38), something no team had managed against Kilkenny. Yet Kilkenny turned that stat on its head in the replay (41-31).
Tipp showed nothing like that workrate against Galway. They were outmuscled, losing the hook-block-tackle count (49-37). Galway won more puck-outs (33-27). Galway won more rucks and dirty ball.
Tactically, they choked the Tipp attack by blocking off the channels but surviving in all those circumstances shows the difference in Tipp this summer. Winning a tight match – especially when Tipp had made a habit of losing tight championship matches since 2013 – will have further boosted their confidence heading into the final.
They will have come on from that game but so will Kilkenny after the Waterford replay. For Kilkenny, an All-Ireland final is also just another game. Tipp will have to handle that big event but they know more than anything that they will have to work as hard, if not harder, to beat Kilkenny.
If they can, they finally will.
LAST FIVE CHAMPIONSHIP MEETINGS
Kilkenny 2-17 Tipperary 2-14, September 2014, All-Ireland final replay
Kilkenny 3-22 Tipperary 1-28, September 2014, All-Ireland final
Kilkenny 0-20 Tipperary 1-14, July 2013, SHC qualifier
Kilkenny 4-24 Tipperary 1-15, August 2012, All-Ireland semi-final
Kilkenny 2-17 Tipperary 1-16, September 2011, All-Ireland final