The biggest day on the hurling calendar is nearly upon us and here we preview the showdown between old foes Kilkenny and Tipperary at headquarters this Sunday.
Sunday, August 18th
All-Ireland SHC final
Kilkenny v Tipperary, Croke Park, 3.30pm - RTE/Sky
A lot has changed in hurling’s new reality but some things seem to always stay the same. Kilkenny and Tipperary, the Cats and the Premier.
The rivals first met in the championship in 1887, with Irish Examiner columnist and historian Paul Rouse writing this week that, back then, Kilkenny was – amazing as it sounds now - considered more of a football county.
It goes without saying that the O'Neill’s Size Five wasn’t long being ousted by the camán as the Noresiders built their small-ball empire. The Brian Cody era saw them reach unsurpassed levels but if they were to win on Sunday, it would, by common consent, be the greatest win of all under the supervision of the James Stephens maestro.
Never before have Kilkenny, under Cody, gone into an All-Ireland final having been beaten twice in the championship. In fact, they have won just four of their seven matches to date, losing to Galway and Wexford and also drawing with Davy Fitzgerald's men.
And yet, they are improving. Cork were fancied by many to win their quarter-final and the Rebels were two in front at half-time but Kilkenny showed their trademark resilience to turn it around after the break, winning eventually by six, 2-27 to 3-18.
And in the semi-final, defending champions Limerick were hot favourites but, again, Kilkenny came up with the big scores when they were needed and did not blink when the opportunity presented itself.
A high-scoring match seems inevitable. Almost every hurling match at the top level seems to be a shoot-out these days and the tallies racked up by the leading marksmen make for extraordinary reading. TJ Reid, for example, has bagged 5-72 (54f, 2-0 pens, 0-6 65s, 0-1 sideline) for the Cats while in the blue corner, Jason Forde has 2-57 (0-36f, 1-0 pen, 0-1 65, 0-3 sideline), with Seamus Callanan chipping in with 7-16 from play.
Hurling's holy grail: The Liam MacCarthy Cup.
Against Wexford in the semi-final, Tipp found themselves five points down on the scoreboard and reduced to 14 men after a red card for John McGrath as the Leinster champions surfed the crest of a wave. In response, Liam Sheedy’s troops dug deep and produced a stunning finale to edge an epic by two points.
While Tipp were beaten in the Munster final, that may have been a blessing of sorts. Astonishingly, the Munster champions have gone on to win the Liam MacCarthy Cup just once in this decade and, in actual fact, they have only reached the All-Ireland final twice.
Limerick did not buck that trend, falling in the semis when they were expected by most pundits to come out on top. But Kilkenny have a habit of defying the odds under Cody and they won’t mind the fact that they have been installed as 11/8 underdogs, with Tipp at 5/6.
Who will win it? Well, it’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation to say that a goal will probably be the deciding score, as it often is in matches of this nature where the stakes are so high and all else seems equal. Will it be Callanan or Reid or perhaps someone else who can rippled the net and claim the local bragging rights and a whole lot more?
The head-to-head results favour the Cats. Tipp have come out on top in just two of their last 10 championship meetings stretching back to 2002.
Yet there remains a nagging suspicion that this particular group of Kilkenny hurlers are punching above their weight, that if Tipp can match them for desire and work-rate, the Premier’s superior class will win the day.
It would take a brave pundit to write off Kilkenny but there is a steely look to this Tipperary side. Their substitutes made a huge impact against Wexford and, when Sheedy runs his bench in the championship minutes, that could make the difference.
Follow live coverage of Sunday's All-Ireland hurling finals on the hoganstand.com match tracker.Tweet