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3 September 2009 Edition

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More than a game BY MATT TREACY

Ways to skin the Cats?

SUNDAY’S All-Ireland SHC final between Kilkenny and Tipperary sees a renewal of possibly the greatest rivalry in hurling (although Cork people would see themselves in there as the greatest rivals of either the Cats or Tipp). It is actually a rivalry based on relatively few meetings. They have played one another in 14 finals, with Kilkenny winning just four of them and the last of those was in 1967, which was the first time they’d beaten Tipp in a final since 1913. So it is a bit like the Dublin v Kerry football rivalry – very lopsided!
Naturally, Tipp people cherish it and there is no doubt but that they love playing the Cats, they love beating the Cats, and that they have no real fear and certainly no inferiority complex when it comes to the Cats. And as someone with Tipp connections I can assure you that stopping Kilkenny winning the four in a row would probably constitute as close to Nirvana as Tipp people are ever likely to attain, if there is any justice in the Universe.
Much of the rivalry, and certainly the edge that it has, dates to the 1960s when Tipperary were the dominant team, winning five titles between 1961 and 1971 and beating Kilkenny in two of the three finals they met in. It was the era of Tipp’s famous Hell’s Kitchen, the full-back line of Michael Maher, John Doyle and Kieran Carey. Apparently, they were not called after the toughest part of lower Manhattan for no reason!
There are many stories told about them in tribute to their ferociousness and the fear in which they were held by opposing forwards. Once when they were about to play Cork the three were watching the red jerseys come out onto the field when Carey (or Maher) remarked to Doyle that the Cork forwards looked a bit on the small side. “Lower the blade,” was Doyle’s response.

TIPP and Cats encounters in that period were ‘robust’, to use the polite phrase, and there was a perception among some observers that Kilkenny had not been able for the physical aspect of Tipperary’s game, something which Dublin and Wexford in 1960 and 1961 were apparently, to a fault some might say.
Hard to imagine that Kilkenny hurlers might ever have been regarded as effete but there you go. Of course, that was then and no one would ever accuse them boys of being ‘soft’ these days. Indeed, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme where Kilkenny are accused of ‘playing on the edge’, which is code, of course, for being dirty.
Now I have never played against Kilkenny so it is easy for me to say but I don’t think they are dirty.
I have played against dirty players and malicious players who try to do serious damage to others and I honestly don’t see that in them. They do employ certain tactics to spoil others but any half-decent competitive hurler is going to do that. What Kilkenny have that half-decent hurlers don’t have is huge ability, physicality, power and the fitness levels to maintain an unrelenting pressure on their opponents, and that starts in the left-corner forward position.
Of course, instead of sitting back, whingeing about this, the thing is to emulate them and this year has been interesting for the fact that Kilkenny have not had an easy game since the divisional stages of the league.
Starting with the league final against Tipp, Galway and Dublin in Leinster and Waterford in the semi-final, they have been given serious challenges by sides who had upped their fitness levels and their work rate and hunger in an attempt to give the Cats some of their own medicine. And they did to an extent but not to the extent of beating them.
Tipperary came closest of all to beating them when taking the league final to extra time and will be hoping to improve on that. That was a tough game and there were some ‘big hits’, as the rugby commentators like to say, and maybe even a few wild pulls so it will be interesting to see what happens on Sunday. 
Perhaps for Tipp, the league final was more a case of restoring lost caste after the 17-point hammering they received in the divisional stage so perhaps they will not feel compelled to go skelping. In any event, trying to unsettle the Cats in that manner did not work for Waterford last year and you will not bully them out of a game.
The question is: how do you beat them and can Tipperary beat them?

THE tactic that has found most favour among teams who have contested with the Cats has been to bring someone back to play as sweeper and crowd the Kilkenny forwards. Dublin deployed that to some success when dropping Johnny McCaffrey back and some of their key forwards were held scoreless.
The problem is that you are stretched up front and unless the delivery is accurate you are going to be landing balls in on top of Walsh and the boys and you can be sure that their deliveries will be accurate. There is also the danger that when a team attempts to stymie the opposition rather than play to their own strengths it can go horribly wrong (item: Limerick in the semi-final).
I have no idea what tactics Tipp will employ but I would imagine that they have sufficient confidence in the ability of their forwards to amass a big tally to go toe-to-toe, at least in the early stages. However, I do not believe that any team is going to beat the Cats like that. In fact I don’t think Tipp will beat them, period.
And what is more, despite the ancestral heritage, I hope they don’t. I would like to see what has been the greatest team of the past god knows how long, maybe the best ever, going out in style. And hopefully letting the rest of us have a chance.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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