Twelve months ago Kilkenny entered Croke Park knowing a victory over arch rivals Tipperary would see them lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup for a record equalling fourth time in a row. After a pulsating battle they emerged victors a feat that put them beside the great Cork team of the ‘40s.
Many observers of our ancient game consider this current Kilkenny crop as the greatest team of all times — of course this is argued by the Cork fans. In my time I've never seen a team that could even be remotely compared to them. This Sunday however they have the opportunity of a lifetime, a glorious chance to land their fifth on the trot and become immortals of the game. In contrast to the bookie's opinion, history shows that the odds are against us. Wexford, Cork and Kerry all fell at the final fence when the chance arose to create history. I don't remember Wexford and Cork's chances but Seamus Darby's late goal for Offaly in 1982 is still fresh in the memory. I can still picture the disappointment edged across the legendary Kerry players faces when the final whistle was blown. Records and stats are there to be broken so there is no reason this Kilkenny side can't be the first to break that hoodoo. People say that Kilkenny will be under serious pressure, it's something I don't agree with. I'd much rather be going for the fifth successive title than trying to stop back to back defeats, now the latter is what I consider real pressure. Kilkenny's good performances this year show no signs of a team under pressure.
One can never underestimate a Tipperary side. We saw once again last year that they produce their best when pitted against the Black and Amber. For long periods of last year's final we were on the back foot. The Premier County had a chance to kill off the tie but found ‘man of the match’ PJ Ryan impassable between the sticks. Many people feel we got the rub of the green last year and maybe they are right to a certain degree but the simple fact is that Tipp's failure to convert chances left Kilkenny in the game and that's something you don't do.
There is no doubt that the Premier County will be seeking revenge, they'll know that they let a glorious chance pass them by twelve months ago. It must be remembered though that they threw everything bar the kitchen sink at Kilkenny and still left empty handed. The big question is have they improved in the last twelve months. I'm not so sure they have. I'm still to be convinced that manager Liam Sheedy knows his best fifteen or in fact where they should be positioned. Padraig Maher played a stormer in last year's final, this year he had one off day against Aisake O'hAlpin which wasn't all his own fault and he was immediately switched out to wing back. They have also tinkered all through the championship with their half forward line. Brendan Cummins’ short puck-outs against Waterford suggests very little confidence in his lines aerial powers, this is something the Kilkenny management are likely to identify. This time around Cummins is likely to be looking for Lar Corbett's deep runs, how Kilkenny deal with the roaming Corbett will have a major bearing on the game — should John Dalton (his likely marker ) follow him or not. The problem with Corbett is that he only drifts in and out, if he was sent out as a conventional third midfielder he would be easier to pin down. The midfield battle is an intriguing one. ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick will probably sit deep to counteract the influence of Corbett and Tipp's young gun Noel McGrath who was outstanding the last day against Waterford. Kilkenny will also be aware that his namesake Shane likes nothing better than to drive through the heart of opposing defences, mind you, he'll have to get past a certain Michael Fennelly first. The Ballyhale man has been playing out of his skin this year, he too loves to run at the defence, a repeat of his performance against Cork would hearten all around him. Both fullforward lines have the potential to do alot of damage, Corbett, Kelly and John O'Brien will produce the goods if given the right type of ball. The same goes for Taggy, Richie and Eddie or whoever is going to be given the nod in Kilkenny's inside line. While I'm on team selection I don't think I've ever seen as much debate about what team should take the field, everyone seems to have their own theory as to what the starting fifteen should be. The Ryder Cup wild card selections may have dominated the papers across Europe last weekend but in Kilkenny there was only one team on people’s minds. It now looks certain that Henry will make the frame if he's deemed fit — he has to start. I know it may be a gamble but it's one worth taking. Most people acknowledge that he may only last a certain amount of time, who knows maybe he'll get through it all but for me it would be a worse blow if he came on as a sub and had to be withdrawn again. There is no doubt but both benches will have a huge part to play on Sunday, we saw the importance of a strong panel last year. What can swing this game in Kilkenny’s favour? For starters Kilkenny are hurling a lot better this year. The importance of Noel Hickey at No 3 in turn releasing JJ back to wing back can't be overstated; it just gives a better balance to the team. After the fright of last year's final, I feel the Cats will be out to prove a point, despite winning last year they’ll know that they weren’t at their best. I also reckon Kilkenny will try and go for the juggler very early as they will be out to break Tipp's spirit.
As the clock ticks down the players will be trying to kill time, those final few days before a final are a killer. After Friday night’s training the players won't relax again until they meet up on Sunday morning. We are all hoping for the same epic contest and of course the same result, whatever happens next Sunday this team owes the county nothing...win, lose or draw they have done us proud. The only people they owe this one to is themselves after all they have been through they deserve to be called immortals.
Our minors have the ability to land the Irish Press Cup
Kilkenny's minors also have their date with destiny when they take on Clare in the curtain raiser. After their runaway victory over Galway it's probably stating the obvious that they have to be very careful on Sunday.
They cannot afford to believe in all the hype that they are going to read in this pre-match build-up. They enter as raging hot favourites, it's a tag that they are going to have to carry but they must remember favourites have fallen before. This team has the ability to land the Irish Press Cup, that's ‘if’ they bring the same work ethic that they did in the semis. A repeat of their earlier performances won’t do. I'm sure Richie Mulrooney and his backroom team will have them spot on physically and most importantly mentally for Sunday’s challenge. Pat Hoban's Intermediate side set the tone nicely last Saturday night when they won their final — it would be a great boost to the seniors if the minors could get the day off to a good start. Best of luck to both teams this Sunday.