We’ve been here so many times before and yet it feels like the unknown. Patchy form makes Kilkenny v Tipperary difficult to call.
The start will be key, as it was when Tipp were five points down after failing to score for 16 minutes in last year’s final, no more so than when Kilkenny could only manage a single point from play inside 23 minutes a year earlier.
As any good sprinter will tell you, pumping your arms hard at the start will give you momentum down the stretch. In both finals, the trailing side came back strongly but that early burst was worth its weight when the gold was being handed out.
The reason the start is so key is that it dictates on whose terms the game is being played. Simply look at last year’s All-Ireland final when Tipperary’s direct approach couldn’t have suited the Kilkenny defence any better, with Declan Ryan’s misery compounded by the superior intelligence with which the Cats distributed the ball.
You want to make the work as easy as possible for your attackers, and that’s what Brian Cody set up his team to do. In terms of the tactical battle, it was a landslide victory for the Marble men in 2011.
They learnt from 2010 that their backs holding their positions would not work — as Richie Power had warned in a team meeting beforehand — and Cody went man-to-man a year later. Ryan needs to learn if he is to ever come out of Liam Sheedy’s shadow — partly by reverting to the movement his predecessor’s team exhibited.
There have been signs of it ever since Ryan took a shuddering reminder of how route-one will not work in the eight-point league defeat at Nowlan Park. Kilkenny’s backs are not the paciest so, as Galway proved, they must be pulled out of position. If that happens, mismatches can be indentified and Tipp’s dangerous forwards can run into space rather than traffic.
Cody, of course, has always looked for mismatches, which is why Henry Shefflin trotted over to John O’Keeffe — who we felt has been abandoned too readily — in last year’s final.
It’s one thing to not have your team dictated by the opposition but when it comes to the greatest player hurling has ever known, it was remiss not to put Padraic Maher on him based on previous positive experiences.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, Eoin Kelly was being marked by Noel Hickey and right in the middle of traffic — essentially this clogged up the Tipp attack and inhibited their movement. It gave the Kilkenny defence an anchor, one they couldn’t have planned any better themselves.
And that’s the challenge for Ryan, to show that he has learnt as Cody did a year earlier. There’s evidence of change on both sides around 30 per cent of the starters from last year will change this Sunday. As much as everyone expects it to be tight, tense and engaging, this is a new ball game.
Yet so much of why Kilkenny fans expect their team to come through is based on old assumptions. You know, that Tommy — he needs no second name — is coming into form, that JJ — ditto — will hold the square, and that Jackie will torment Lar — it works both ways — as he did last year.
That’s all well and good but it’s based on the theory that it will be all right on the night. Because it so often has been, it seems folly to question it. That remains to be seen but it partly depends on how Tipp come out too.
Corbett is on the 40 now and will oscillate between the half- and full-forward lines, so a different approach might dull the effect of Tyrrell. In any case, it might be the remit of Tommy Walsh or Richie Doyle who, in his first All-Ireland final, might need time to adjust — as O’Keeffe did before.
It will be interesting to see if Corbett trots over to the Barrow Rangers man, and if that precipitates a rejig by Cody.
At the very least, it will get Kilkenny thinking and Ryan should look for this match-up in the hope of disconcerting the young defender. If Corbett is to start wing-forward anyway, there is no reason not to.
Because at the other end, Shefflin will station himself in any position he considers a burning platform in Tipp’s defence. Conor O’Brien had an excellent Munster final but the jury is out on a man Ryan cut from his panel during 2011 — particularly under the high ball.
Colin Fennelly will be picked up by the pacy Michael Cahill and we would argue that this is a key match-up, with the Ballyhale flyer in sumptuous form. He went off injured against Galway early on and while that had no bearing on the result, his presence tormented Limerick.
Richie Power is the most important player for Kilkenny for so many reasons. His ball-winning, his searing runs at goal which open up defences, his score-taking — even when Galway cleaned the Cats out, Power was still playing well. You could count on one hand the amount of times he hasn’t. Indeed it’s encouraging for Cody that his side ran away from Limerick even after his main orchestrator went off with concussion.
Intensity from the start will decide the game. Galway beat Kilkenny because they had more of it and the Cats beat Tipp last year for the same reason. A turnover county of 18-3 in the Cats’ favour proved that and allowed them dictate the game.
Should Tipp break even on that count this time, it gives Corbett, Noel McGrath and Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher a real platform. They’ll need it because otherwise Kilkenny will be pounding their way to another final.
The beauty of this game is how question marks there are on both sides.
It’s the great unknown.
Verdict: Tipp, just about.