One of hurling’s biggest rivalries is set to be renewed on Sunday when Kilkenny and Tipperary meet in the showpiece event of the season; the All-Ireland SHC final.
It’s the sixth All-Ireland decider involving the two heavyweight counties in 10 seasons (2014 final went to a replay) as the decade rounds off the way it started with Liam Sheedy and Brian Cody locking horns.
Kilkenny find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being underdogs, a strange place for the Cats but one that is justified given how their respective seasons have gone. Tipperary have impressed throughout their Championship run with the only blotch on their record being a Munster final defeat to Limerick. They blew through Cork, Clare and Waterford with ease before ending Laois’ dream run and coming out on top in a nail-biter of a semi-final against Wexford.
Kilkenny, on the other hand, have lost twice this summer meaning if they win this weekend they will become the first team to lift the All-Ireland despite two losses. Galway handed them their first Nowlan Park championship defeat in 70 years before Wexford claimed their first Bob O’Keeffe Cup in 15 years with a one-point win in Croke Park.
However, while many have been writing Kilkenny off all year, they are just 70 minutes from a 37th Liam MacCarthy title and if they do win it, they’ll have done it the hard way with back-to-back-to-back wins over Cork, Limerick and Tipperary. Whether you agree with the system that allows them to have lost two games or not, there can be no denying that that is a run-in not to be sniffed at.
Kilkenny’s underdog status will play a role in the outcome of this weekend’s clash as they come into the final under the radar and under-appreciated. The majority expect a rampant and experienced Tipperary side to blow the young Cats away but that won’t happen because if we have learned anything in the past it’s that an undervalued Kilkenny side will quickly make you re-evaluate hurling.
The Ballyhale axis to Kilkenny’s attack displays a mixture of youthful exuberance and dogged experienced with some of that old fashioned Kilkenny flair sprinkled on top.
TJ Reid has been in incredible form this year averaging 12.4 points a game. He is still Kilkenny’s go-to star when times are tough and has been deadly accurate from the placed ball and probably assisted more scores than anyone in the championship to date.
Colin Fennelly is the focal point to their attack. Seamus Callanan is getting all the plaudits for his full-forward play this year and rightly so but Fennelly is equally as important to Kilkenny and causes just as many problems for opposition full-backs. Strong, athletic, skilful and a keen eye for goal, this might just be the second time he lights up a Croke Park decider this year.
The youthful exuberance of Adrian Mullen, the AIB Club Hurler of the Year, has injected a spark into a Kilkenny attack that had been somewhat lacking over the past two seasons. Mullen is likely to start in the corner before drifting out and operating around the middle third of the pitch. The youngster was awesome against Limerick chipping in with four points from play and Sunday’s final should be tailor-made for him given his boundless energy and eye for a score.
The three were pivotal to Ballyhale’s successful club campaign and have all carried that form into the inter-county season. Expect them to have a huge bearing on the outcome of Sunday’s game.
Arguably the most intriguing aspect to this final is the reigniting of the Brian Cody and Liam Sheedy rivalry. The pair have met in the All-Ireland final on two occasions (2009 & 2010) with each coming out with a victory, however, Sheedy’s win in 2010 marked probably the bleakest day in Brian Cody’s Kilkenny career as they were denied an unprecedented five successive All-Ireland titles.
This may be a new Kilkenny side, with TJ Reid being the only survivor from 2010 but Tipperary are backboned by the side that prevented history that day and Cody will be gunning for this one, he’ll have this young Kilkenny side up for the fight.
Don’t expect lightning to strike twice.
It may not have been the All-Ireland final many neutrals had wished for such was the colour and excitement that came with final appearances for Galway, Waterford and Limerick over the past two years but it is definitely one that we are lucky to have.
Kilkenny’s underdog status, the influence of the Ballyhale three and Brian Cody’s fire will be enough to get ‘Cody’s kittens’ over the line.
Prediction: Kilkenny by 4