There are only two games remaining in both the All-Ireland Senior Championships, provided there are no draws, with the hurling decider up first this weekend. It is a return to the top for both Kilkenny and Tipperary and here at Pundit Arena, we will build up to the eagerly anticipated clash.
This time last year saw the whole country bask in the novel All-Ireland final pairing of Clare and Cork while we reflected on the greatest hurling season of all time. This year was always going to struggle to live up to expectations but we have still witnessed a fine hurling season.
The Munster championship was very good with Cork going one step further and securing the Munster title in the last competitive game to be played at Páirc Uí Chaoímh before its redevelopment.
One of the most compelling moments of the season was the dramatic finale between Kilkenny and Galway where late Galway goals were followed by Joe Canning outdoing Henry Shefflin with an audacious effort to secure a dramatic draw.
Wexford were one of the stories of the summer despite only making the quarter-final stage. They were responsible for guaranteeing that there would be a new name on the Liam McCarthy Cup by eliminating Clare after two epic encounters, full of skill and drama. They surprised a lot of neutrals and gained a lot of new admirers. They now look primed to be very competitive again over the next few years.
But the real stories of the year have been the two teams in the final, Kilkenny and Tipperary. Both teams contested the National League Final back in May and now both sides are ready to add another chapter to their rivalry. Having treated the public to a phenomenal trilogy in 2009, 2010 and 2011, both sides are ready to take centre stage again.
Kilkenny have played well this year, but some would say that they stumbled over the line against Limerick. Tipperary were written off but have bounced back to prove a lot of people wrong. Nobody can dispute that both teams are deserving of their place in the final and this should be another cracking contest.
Brian Cody’s Kilkenny were very flat and leaderless in the 2013 championship and both of these problems have been rectified. A year without Henry Shefflin appears to have produced benefits for the future. Shefflin’s class and indispensability to the Kilkenny side had been ever-present from 1999 all the way to 2012 and his absence in 2013 left a massive hole.
He has failed to fully return this season, only making cameo appearances from the substitute’s bench, but other players have taken over the leadership and responsibility that was missing last year. The likes of Colin Fennelly, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid have added a lot to their performances and are the new leaders of this Kilkenny side. Shefflin is still there but he is no longer the main man.
The lack of pace, intensity and energy also stood out clearly in their 2013 campaign. Nobody completely wrote them off, but a lot of people had doubts as to whether there was too much mileage on the clocks. Kilkenny were famous for the intensity and physicality while they dominated the game in recent years and both of these elements were absent, but Brian Cody has turned things around.
The move of Richie Hogan to midfield has been a masterstroke. Hogan was always a player with excellent hurling ability and had some very good games in the Kilkenny shirt but this year at midfield he has been consistently immense. He has been the stand out player in almost every game and the spark that has made Kilkenny tick.
Cillian Buckley’s move to wing-back has also contributed and a few alterations have improved the Kilkenny team.
Tipperary have really transformed their season. They are a team that this website has written a lot about, both positive and negative. They were criticised, but then pride was swallowed and humble pie was eaten as Eamon O’Shea has led his team to an All-Ireland final.
Their season predominantly hinged on their game with Galway. They lost a game to Limerick when they were in control for long periods, but they finished poorly while Limerick finished strongly to send Tipperary to the qualifiers. They learned the dangers of the qualifiers in 2013 and 2014 sent them down a similar path. They were drawn with Galway in a game that would make or break their season.
They trailed by six points and it looked like there was a crisis on the way but Seamus Callanan, Lar Corbett and Padraic Maher thundered into the game to see them totally outscore Galway in the last fifteen minutes and keep their season alive. This victory led to an easy game against Offaly to qualify for an All-Ireland quarter-final where they faced Dublin.
Dublin played very poorly and Tipperary played very well to secure a semi-final clash against Cork. Tipperary had done well to turn their season around and a lot of people would have seen qualification for a semi-final as a success, taking into account how their season was looking entering the final quarter of their game against Galway.
Cork were most people’s favourites for the semi-final having played some excellent hurling on their way to winning the Munster title. Cork’s forwards and midfielders would have been seen as being too strong for the Premier but Tipperary had different ideas. They absolutely blew Cork away and showed the country that they are still a serious outfit and that they did not become bad players over the last two years.
They burst onto the scene in 2009 and their double All-Ireland title success, senior and under-21, in 2010 meant that a lot of people thought Tipperary were going to dominate. 2012 and 2013 were very poor seasons and some of the criticism and questions were justified, but credit where it is due, they have answered a lot of critics.
So Kilkenny and Tipperary faced off on the first Saturday in July of 2013 in a knock out championship game. This year they face each other on the first Sunday in September in a knock out game of a different sort. The stakes were high in 2013, and the stakes are even higher in 2014.
This historic rivalry has provided some of hurling’s finest occasions. The 2014 All-Ireland Final should be no different. A packed Croke Park will be full of blue, gold, black and amber. The atmosphere will be tense and the quality of hurling should also be very high.
Both sets of players, management and supporters will be desperate to win in order to claim the Liam McCarthy Cup and the bragging rights.
It promises to be a classic.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena.