WHEN the Tipperary team bus was making its way to Nowlan Park for last year’s All-Ireland qualifier against Kilkenny, the players had an eerie feeling.
The streets around Kilkenny city were pretty empty. The Tipp players couldn’t understand or comprehend the silence on the evening of such a monumental game.
Then the penny dropped — everyone was already inside the ground well over an hour before throw-in.
The mood in the city that afternoon, the atmosphere at the ground, all of it contributed to something special. Not just in the context of the whole championship but it was surely the most unique hurling championship match ever played outside of Croke Park.
The whole occasion was as much about tribalism as hurling. The enormity of the occasion was heightened by the sense of both teams desperately trying to survive beyond July.
It was also another compelling chapter in the current modern Kilkenny-Tipperary history.
When the sides met in All-Ireland semi-finals in 2002 and 2003, it was the first since the 1960s that Kilkenny and Tipp had a really good team at the same time.
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. Yet with Kilkenny having now won six of their last seven championship meetings in the past 12 years, the texture of the Kilkenny-Tipp rivalry has been radically altered.
With last year’s All-Ireland meeting being their fifth clash in five seasons (with two epic league finals also played in 2009 and 2013) the counties have met more often than at any time since the 1960s, when Tipp and Kilkenny clashed in two All-Ireland finals and three league finals between 1964 and 1968.
Familiarity has never fathered harmony in the relationship but familiarity between the teams now hasn’t bred anything like the same contempt and sulphur which strained relations in the 1960s.
That same bad blood that had dominated the relationship for so long no longer exists but there is still a serrated edge between the counties and these two groups of players.
The modern Kilkenny-Tipp relationship has been further crystallised and magnified by the standards that they have both set.
When the sides met in 2011, it was the first time in 108 years that two teams met in an All-Ireland final for the third year in a row. Two of those finals — 2009 and 2010 — would rank alongside any of the great finals in the GAA’s history.
When you rank league finals in order of standing and status, the 2009 decider is always at the top of the list. In terms of pace, intensity and physicality, that match was indistinguishable from a championship game. Yet that was the league where a yellow card was effectively a sending off and some players still interpreted the rules as a licence to cut loose.
Historical tensions spilled over, the game oscillated and was only decided after extra-time but some of the hits were so ferocious that that match was an epochal event in the context of modern hurling.
In last year’s league final, the same physicality wasn’t as latent as 2009 but there was still more than enough edge to the combat to verify the match’s status as a close second to the 2009 final.
The statistics from last year’s decider also highlighted its intensity and quality. In total, both teams made a combined total of 359 plays.
Those numbers were off the wall for league hurling but were further underlined when compared with comparative analysis of the three Kilkenny-Tipperary All-Ireland finals between 2009-11 when the average number of total plays was 368.
Furthermore, the average hook-block-tackle count in those three games was 26. In last year’s decider, Kilkenny shaded that category 26-25.
These Kilkenny and Tipp players have repeatedly elevated hurling but the landscape has changed now and these two teams are no longer out on their own and ahead of the pack.
Kilkenny have had a great league campaign but there is still a real transitional feel to this side. They have added youth and pace but how good are those new players? Will the older guys still have the legs come high-summer?
Tipp have rebounded from their mid-spring crisis in impressive manner but how will this group respond when the heat comes on again?
In so many ways, so many things have changed. And yet, nothing has changed. Tipp and Kilkenny meeting in a big game. Again. What will happen next?
Bring it on.