It may only be February, but this Sunday Tipperary are faced with a game that could set the tone for the whole season.
They face Kilkenny in Nowlan Park, eager to record a win over their great rivals.
This is a fixture which has defined hurling’s landscape over the last decade. However, barring the obvious exception of the All-Ireland final in 2010, the Cats have got the better of the Premier when it mattered most in recent years.
Last season, Tipp captured the Munster title with relative ease. As they embarked on their five week break before the All-Ireland semi-final, only one thing was on their mind; revenge for 2014…and 2013… and 2012…oh yeah, and 2011. Kilkenny had knocked them out of the previous four championships.
Alas, perhaps they had one eye on Kilkenny, and were beaten by an impressive Galway team on the day.
Eamon O’Shea departed following the championship exit, and Michael Ryan took the job as manager. Ryan immediately brought about change.
The host of retirements within one week last November sent out a message throughout the panel. This was no coincidence. With the impending squad announcement, it was likely that these older players were told that they were now surplus to requirements. They were given the opportunity to jump before they were pushed.
Last Saturday night, a new-look side out-worked, out-foxed and out-hurled Dublin. The Dubs were fresh from a Walsh Cup triumph, and it seemed like Ger Cunningham’s side were going to challenge for honours this spring.
However Tipp, having abstained from competitive hurling in January, blew them away.
Tipp have added an extra dimension this year. Ryan has chosen to go with bulk, as it is believed that they were pushed around far too easily by Galway last August. The new players coming through are doing a job. Tipperary players are featuring heavily in the Fitzgibbon Cup sides qualified for the semi-finals, particularly Mary I.
They were far too reliant on Séamus Callanan, and to a lesser extent, John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer last term. Now the likes of Jason Forde and John McGrath are easing that scoring burden, and adding an extra dynamic to a potent attack.
A new era of Tipperary hurling is getting off to the best possible start.
However on Sunday, all this could change. On Sunday, they face the real litmus test.
The achilles heel of Premier hurling that is the psychological block of getting past Kilkenny is one with which they must deal. They have lost classic after classic against Brian Cody’s side, constantly losing tight games.
They need to put one over on the old foe, and soon.
For this Tipp team to believe that they can go all the way this September, they need to beat Kilkenny. Focus was lost last year, and they suffered badly.
It may only be February, but this game could represent a major milestone for Tipperary. Yes, last year they won this tie in Thurles, but a victory in the Cats’ back yard on Sunday will send out a message that Tipp under Michael Ryan will be a force to be reckoned with.
On the flip side of that coin, a loss could set them back, and the demons will not be banished.