By Noel Dundon
And so it comes down to this - the best of three.
Tipperary and Kilkenny make the familiar trip to Croker on Sunday for the third year in succession to contest the All-Ireland senior hurling final - the first time in the history of the game that they will meet in three successive deciders, and the first time since 1903 that the same teams met on three successive occasions - Cork and London being the teams back then.
The ‘peoples final’ is the one everyone has waited to witness. Kilkenny took the ‘09 crown in dubious circumstances; Tipperary returned twelve months later with an emphatic victory; this year will see all those discussions about which is the better side, put to bed. Or will it?
The phenomenal Kilkenny men are contesting their 11th All-Ireland senior hurling final in 13 years - a truly remarkable record for a bunch of men who have stayed at the top for so long. Granted, the side has changed hugely from the first of those outings, but there is nobody who can deny the impact the Cats have had on the game of hurling over the last decade and a half.
That Tipperary scuppered their ‘Drive for Five’ in the 2010 final served only to make Brian Cody’s men even more determined to seek revenge. They are back, ready, willing and very definitely able to reclaim the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
And, the fact that ‘King’ Henry Shefflin will be bidding for his 8th All-Ireland senior hurling medal gives them that extra incentive - the great Ballyhale Shamrocks star will be hoping to equal Tipperary’s late and great legend John Doyle when he takes to the Croke Park turf on Sunday. It all went horribly wrong for him in last years decider when he limped off after 20 minutes with a cruciate knee ligament injury, but he has battled back to form and is again central to Kilkenny’s wellbeing.
Tipperary’s youthful stars halted Kilkenny’s march to immortality a year ago and have been touted as a side which could go on to dominate for some years to come. However, this is very loose talk indeed and Declan Ryan’s men are very much aware that the champions tag brings with it a licence for everyone else to have a right cut off the holders. It’s role reversal for the 2011 final with Kilkenny bidding to dethrone the champions - a direct opposite to last years emotionally charged, high octane affair.
Tipperary’s championsip so far has been so different to Liam Sheedy’s final year in charge. The defeat to Cork in the Munster championship opener left Tipp with a lot of soul searching to do in 2010. But, as the season progressed, their form got better and better. They peaked for the All-Ireland Final having dismissed Galway and Waterford and then produced the performance of a lifetime in the final to bridge a nine year gap.
This year though, the form has been impressive from the start. Declan Ryan, Tommy Dunne and Michael Gleeson had the team firing on all cylinders as they raced through Munster without breaking sweat. Cork, Clare and Waterford all fell on their swords with the side finding the net as frequently as they liked. Unstoppable was the most common word used to describe Tipp - until, the All-Ireland semi-final, that is, when Anthony Daly’s Dublin put a halt to the gallop. In the final analysis, Tipp trotted over the finish line in pole position, but the jury is still out on the actual performance.
Dublin posed the kind of physical challenge Tipperary can expect on Sunday. They hit hard, were relentless in their pursuit of the sliothar and smothered the usually flent Tipp play, from the outset. Kilkenny will seek to do exactly the same in the final. But, crucially, they have the attacking acumen to cause the mortal damage that Dublin were unable to inflict.
Kilkenny, according to all the pundits, were unimpressive in the All-Ireland semi-final win over Waterford. After that game, Tipperary, without having made the final at that stage, were installed as raging hot favourites to win the All-Ireland, never mind the semi-final. A week later, the odds had changed. Tipp had difficulty in dispensing with Dublin - the playing field levelled. Now, it’s game on for the All-Ireland Final. 50/50 match - the way to have it.
Expectations of another classic game of hurling in line with the last two clashes could well be off the mark. Sunday’s game could well be a tense, dour affair with the emphasis on preventing the others from getting into stride. Kilkenny could try to prevent Tipperary’s sharpshooters from exploiting the expanses of Croke Park, in a similar way to Dublin’s methods. On the other hand, Brian Cody has never been one to worry about what other teams do and prefers instead to focus on his own lads many strengths. He has said that he will not be engaging the services of a sweeper in a similar manner to the Dubs approach.
Declan Ryan will be banking on his players returning to the Munster Final form - a game he described as ‘freakish’ - but with a touch of physicality thrown in for good measure. It is accepted that Sunday’s match will be a tough, high tempo encounter with no quarter asked or given. It will be a mighty contest - not a place for the faint hearted - with all the manly qualities of honesty, grit, single-mindedness and confidence required to see out the win, for whichever team emerges.
The fact that there is so much rivalry between the neighbouring counties adds spice to an already curried dish.
There is huge mutual respect between Tipperary and Kilkenny folk and while Sunday will see many a friendship put on hold for an hour and a half or so, both counties have been honourable losers and dignified winners in equal measure over the course of the last two years. Sunday’s result won’t change that, but it could put a few questions to bed.
So, where will the game be won and lost? Well, whole volumes could be written on this particular subject. However, it’s probably accurate to say that whichever side produces their best on the day will win. If Tipp perform to their expected high level, they will retain the Liam MacCarthy Cup. If they don’t they will find it very hard to win.
On the other hand, if Kilkenny reach their peak, they will be very hard to stop. This game could come down to the ability to hold the opposition and edge over the line, rather than hurling carefree, with abandon, and sprinting to the steps of the Hogan Stand.
Remember the ‘09 final? Underdogs Tipp hurled as well as could be expected of them, but they still came up short - could this be Kilkenny’s fate on Sunday?
What about 2010? Rank outsiders Tipp hurled out of their skins as the champions failed to perform when the pressure came on - could this be Tipp’s fate on the fourth day of September?
It’s going to be an intriguing, dog-eat-dog battle. The Leinster champions against the Munster champions. But, who will be the All-Ireland champions for 2011?
Could we have the first draw in an All-Ireland hurling final since 1959 and the first drawn All-Ireland between Tipp and Kilkenny? Tipp were last involved in a drawn All-Ireland senior hurling final in 1908, against Dublin.
All will be revealed.