Watch Kilkenny v Tipperary live on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (IoI) this Sunday from 12.45pm. The show begins with live coverage of the MHC semi-final between Kilkenny and Galway. Live updates throughout the day on RTÉ Radio 1's Sunday Sport, from 1pm on RTÉ Radio 1 LW 252, Radio 1 Extra on DAB and RTÉ.ie, and on FM from 2pm, while we'll have live text commentary here on RTÉ.ie as well as post-match reaction, images, video and audio.</notforsyndication>
While every All-Ireland final is historic in its own right, this year’s decider between Kilkenny and Tipperary will reserve its own special place in the annals no matter what the outcome, writes RTÉ Sport's Séamus Leonard.
The current Cats outfit have long been touted as possibly the greatest team of all-time, and victory at Croke Park on Sunday would end the debate. Sure, a Cork team achieved a four-in-a-row in the 1940s, but to do so in the modern game by going four summers unbeaten in the back-door age would easily put Brian Cody and his troops at the very top rung of the ladder.
While Kilkenny strolled to the All-Ireland title in 2008, this year has been an entirely different matter. Pushed hard in Leinster by Galway and Dublin, the Noresiders then withstood a huge effort by Waterford to put themselves in their eighth All-Ireland final of this decade.
Having blown Waterford and Limerick out of the water in the last two deciders, the Cats will face a traditional power in Tipp this time, and the fact the Premier men looked at their imperious best in the semi-final means that there is little chance of yet another capitulation.
The Kilkenny team will not be named until after training on Friday night, but there seems little chance of any surprises in their line-up. Noel Hickey is pushing for a start at full-back, but it would be extremely harsh to see anyone dropped. The Dunnamaggin clubman has been plagued by injury again this season, but he has shown in the past that he can make a seamless return to action even in the latter stages of the Championship.
While Kilkenny’s forward line is much-vaunted, it is probably the performance of their defence that will decide the outcome on Sunday.
The Tipp inside-forward line of Noel McGrath, Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett smashed 5-10 past Limerick on their last visit to Headquarters, and while they will be put under far greater pressure and receive far less supply against the Cats, the trio will still take some stopping.
Kelly’s back problems have been well-documented all year, but he showed glimpses of his best against the Treatymen, and Tipp will be hoping he will have rediscovered even more of it in the intervening three weeks.
Legend of the ancient game DJ Carey felt it necessary to come out and defend Kilkenny wing-back Tommy Walsh recently, and expressed his belief that the Tullaroan clubman was being targeted by opposing players who are looking to get him sent off.
There may be some truth in what Carey had to say, but if Walsh is being subjected to such treatment it’s because he has earned a reputation of having a short fuse. Such players will always come in for extra attention, and the tactic is hardly a new one in Gaelic Games.
But the main reason why Walsh picks up so many yellow cards is that he is often guilty of executing reckless tackles, particularly on players who run directly at him. When Walsh wraps his hurl around someone’s neck, or clatters it against a set of shins, it is not the recipient who is at fault.
The six-time All Star is exceptional under the high ball and teak tough, but he, like his defensive colleagues, does not like being run at, at pace. It might sound simplistic, but Kilkenny’s fate is intrinsically linked with that of the 26-year-old.
If he scores an eight or above in the ratings come Monday morning, you can safely assume the Cats have completed a superb four-in-a-row. However, a seven or below for Walsh could well indicate that Tipp’s first All-Ireland appearance in eight years has been a successful one.
Walsh is 12/1 with Paddy Power to pick up the Man of the Match award on Sunday night. He might just be worth a punt.