Last weekend saw Kilkenny and Tipperary both qualify for the National Hurling League final at the expense of Galway and Clare. In what was a relatively disappointing day of hurling, both of hurling’s traditionally strong teams gave themselves a chance at winning 2014’s first significant piece of hurling silverware. While last season saw some of the so-called lesser counties competing in August and September, the start of 2014 has seen two of the superpowers back at the top tier. Is this a sign of things to come for the summer? Will last year’s sensational hurling year be a flash in the pan? Let’s discuss.
Both Kilkenny and Tipperary will look back at 2013 as very poor seasons. The occasion in Nolan Park provided one of the best hurling occasions in years when a knockout game took place between the two championship favourites at the beginning of July. Part of the reason for their early exits boiled down to luck of the draw, but at the same time both sides performed poorly in the championship and they would have struggled against Clare, Cork, Limerick or Dublin in Croke Park. Kilkenny looked like a tired and ageing team while Tipperary completely underperformed in their two fixtures. Big questions were asked, particularly on this website, about both sides’ fortunes for 2014 but they both find themselves in the league final.
So, are both Kilkenny and Tipperary back to their best? Between 2008 and 2012, Kilkenny and Tipperary provided some of the best hurling games we have ever seen. They brought the game to a new level in terms of intensity and physicality. Last year saw pace counteract this and it looked as if we could be embarking on a new era. But now Kilkenny and Tipperary look to have modified their approaches to move with the times. Having these two teams competing in the league final doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be at the top come the summer, as we saw last season. But it will force a lot of people to ask questions, or reassess their opinions on how both teams will fair come the championship.
Everyone knows that it would have been a huge risk to completely write off Kilkenny and Brian Cody. Nobody could really confidently say that last year was the end of the road for hurling’s greatest ever team. It was suggested, and there was definitely a lot of substance to those suggestions. They really looked like a team that was lacking in pace, energy and leadership last year. In a team that wasn’t getting any younger, it was hard to see how this pace and energy could be recreated. Most of their players had been on the road since 2006, playing at a ferocious intensity. Winning the 2012 All-Ireland seemed to paper over some cracks. It was a title that Galway really should have won in a season when Kilkenny seemed to be regressing. 2013 then saw Kilkenny fail to even grace the turf of Croke Park. A way back was always going to be tough.
The lack of leadership in 2013 was hugely evident and this was mainly down to the unavailability of a fit Henry Shefflin. He had bounced back from career-threatening injuries before and it looked like 2013’s return was a step too far. In Shefflin’s absence, Kilkenny struggled hugely in attack. The return of Shefflin was going to be significant. Obviously he would be an asset, but his absence showed an over-reliance.
‘The return of the king’ has worked out very well for the Cats but not as most had anticipated. Personally, I thought last season’s year without Shefflin was going to go one of two ways; show other players that they needed to start taking initiative if Kilkenny were going to return or it was going to be the end of an era as an ageing Shefflin would have to carry too much responsibility on return.
Fortunately for Kilkenny, the first scenario seems to have occurred. Instead of players looking to others to take responsibility, players have all played their own part in a collective attacking outfit. Colin Fennelly is the best example of a player who has taking his own initiative and led the Kilkenny attack. Richie Hogan has moved to midfield but has been highly influential. While he was poor against Galway, Walter Walsh has really shown a lot of effective play. In Mark Kelly, they look to have a potential replacement for Eddie Brennan. TJ Reid and Eoin Larkin have also shown glimpses of their best form, leaving the burden on Shefflin to be of less importance. His role seems to have changed and it seems to be the best solution for everyone involved in the Kilkenny side.
Shefflin has not exactly been the focal point of their attack so far, but showed last Sunday that he still has a huge part to play. His class is still undisputed. He showed excellent creativity and demonstrated that he still has the eye for goal. He scored four points from play and had multiple assists. The free taking duties were also relinquished. It just appears that there has been an improvement in Kilkenny and most of it has come from a lack of reliance on one player, Henry Shefflin. There are more leaders and more players taking responsibility. Their defence was never really in question, but their attack has been firing so far. It looks as if a year without Shefflin was a learning process for the younger players. They saw how life was without him and more than Shefflin had to deliver if the Cats were to bounce back. Now it seems that they have bounced back.
Tipperary on the other hand have gained momentum from nowhere and now see themselves in a league final against their biggest rivals. It looked as if the Premier were really struggling at the beginning of the year. Having had a disastrous 2013, they were highly criticised and huge questions were asked of players both individually and collectively. They were the side to dethrone Kilkenny’s attempts at five All-Ireland’s in a row. They won an under-21 All-Ireland in the same year, 2010, and that was on the back of a double minor winning All-Ireland in 2006 and 2007. They looked like a team that had peaked when relatively young and looked to be failing to maintain focus and motivation. Their style of play had changed and they overall looked like a team that was moving backwards, in danger of having great futures behind them.
The start of the league did little to discourage these opinions when they had a lucky win over Waterford, followed by defeats to Clare, Galway and Kilkenny. They had a ‘make or break’ game at home to Dublin that would either see them either qualify for a league quarter-final or play a relegation final. They stumbled over the line with a hard fought victory setting up a semi-final with Cork. The next game with Cork saw them win again and all of a sudden two wins filled the team with confidence and belief and their fortunes have totally turned.
They comfortably accounted for Clare, All-Ireland champions, in the league semi-final last weekend. They played a good brand of hurling and the players now seem to be playing with the freedom and pace that saw them win All-Ireland titles only a short few years ago. Two players have really shone for Tipperary in their turnaround and they are Brendan Maher and Seamus Callanan. At centre-back Maher has really shown some leadership qualities and others have followed him. He has steadied up their defence and helped to create a platform for attacks in what had been a troublesome position for the Premier. Up front, Callanan looks like a transformed player. Ability was never doubted for this man, but his appetite for the fight and ability to win his own ball was. So far, he has been scoring for fun and is the main reason for their run to the league final.
Tipperary’s turnaround has been highly admirable. It does show how easy things can turn. One win, became two wins, became three in a row and all of a sudden there is a chance of silverware on the table. While it is Kilkenny and Tipperary in the league final, people must not get carried away. Remember, both sides faced off in another classic encounter in this fixture last year only to have poor championship seasons. But others would suggest that this could be Kilkenny and Tipperary both returning to the top again. It’s hard to know what will unfold. No matter what happens in the league, the championship will be a different story but overall both Kilkenny and Tipperary have answered a lot of questions that were asked over the winter. They haven’t gone anyway and have shown again that they should never be doubted or written off.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena.