Ulster has the final say on who will win giant battle for Cup glory
Tipperary v Kilkenny, All-Ireland Hurling Final, Páirc an Chrócaigh, Sunday, 3.30pm
Declan Bogue catches up with local hurling chiefs for the hard opinions on who will lift McCarthy crown.
Tom McLean, previously Dunloy manager, has been Derry hurling boss since he took over from Ger Rogan in August 2014.
He says: "Kilkenny will be ready, they will be well up for the game and it's one of those that depends almost entirely on how Tipperary prepare because Kilkenny will be the same as they always are. It's amazing how Brian Cody keeps coming back and keeps bringing new players in. Waterford had them to the pin of their collar and they came back with that last point to get the replay. Then, they got that winner late on in the replay.
"They are doing that year in, year out and there is going to be a time when they wilt, but they keep getting over the line. That is the sign of true champions. In Derry and Antrim, we have to go after players and dual players as well. You have to be nice to players, you can't be ruthless or ruling with an iron fist all the time. We can't afford to do any of that because we would have nobody else to come in and replace them. But down in Kilkenny, you see that club hurling is very, very competitive. Every time they play each other it's like they are trying to get into the shop window to get showing what they could do if they were playing for Kilkenny.
"You have to fight for two or three years in order to get onto the team. You had Walter Walsh, and then you have young Liam Blanchfield. It's a great way to be and train. How long was TJ Reid on the panel before he made the breakthrough? Tomorrow, it will come down to the last ball again. The Tipp men are proud and I wouldn't be surprised to see them coming back another day. But you would still find it hard to look past the Cats."
Dominic McKinley will form part of Antrim’s four-man management team in the 2017 season in Div 2A and the Christy Ring Cup.
He says: "I have a thing about Richie Hogan in finals. He unlocks matters and can do wonderful things, as he proved in the first game against Waterford. For me, he would be the key aspect for Kilkenny. He is the key player, especially with Michael Fennelly missing. He has done it this year already, he just has the knack of being in the right place at the right time, which is great for a person of small stature.
"He wins possession from high balls and everything, for me he is key for them. I have a sneaky feeling that Tipp will win. They clearly went away and moulded their game around Kilkenny’s style and I have the funniest feeling, with Fennelly missing, that Tipp will win the match. They are going to slightly edge it. The main thing here is the resources they have.
"I think they have better strength in depth than Kilkenny, highlighted by ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer coming on the last time out and scoring the goal. I think Kilkenny’s resources have been pushed to the limit this year and have been for the last couple of years.
"It flies in the face of everything to say you are going for Tipp and yet you can say all these things about Kilkenny. We all know they have come up against the odds in the last number of years but I think, just maybe, it might take its toll this time.
"There were concerns about Brian Gavin being named as the referee, but I think Tipperary know him, everyone assesses referees and their habits. Tipperary have brought in bigger men in their forward line and their play is moulded around intensity."
Michael Johnston is a former Armagh manager who has been in charge of Down since he succeeded Ger Monan in November 2014.
He says: "I think Kilkenny are coming to the end of the line, a certain amount of key players are approaching the stage where they will soon be hanging up their boots. One of the big things Kilkenny have historically always had in their favour is the ability to gather up their workrate and ethic, their team spirit. Brian Cody has never had closed sessions, but this year he has had them nearly every time. Thursday was the only night they had an open session this term.
"I have a couple of friends who would be close to the Kilkenny set-up, and the word is that it is all being kept very quiet, they’re just working away. They obviously are concerned about how Tipperary are going to set up themselves. They are going to react to that. Tipperary are different. There is probably a team in Tipperary that might be there for another year or two.
"They have been around the block, they have a lot of mileage in the legs but a lot of hunger and it could boil down to who wants it most tomorrow. As for the improvements in Tipp’s conditioning, all you have to do is look at young Ronan Maher. I would know Ronan very well, he stayed in my house at Under-12 and Under-14 level, even up to Under-16 with Thurles Sarsfields, they would be back and forth to St John’s a bit.
"The difference in his build and physique in three years is immense. He is now nearly the same shape as his brother Paudie! I fancy Tipperary to win it. I think the introduction of Michael Cahill this year has been fantastic for Tipperary’s defence."
Sylvester McConnell led Armagh to a number of wins over Down in the last year and to an Ulster final loss to Antrim.
He says: "The key to the game is where Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan goes and who picks him up.
"If Hogan starts at centre-forward, he will drift out into open space because he is such a quality player at finding gaps. Tipp need to deal with that because that is the key to the outcome. To deal with that, Brendan Maher probably has to pick him up from midfield. If you go man-to-man on Hogan, he will take you on a tour of the field and will leave holes all over the pitch.
"I don’t think Michael Fennelly’s absence will make a difference. All they have to do is drop TJ Reid into the middle of the field. It would then be difficult to pick him up and he would get loose hand passes and shots off. I don’t think Fennelly will be missed for his driving force with Hogan coming out to the middle, and Tipperary’s centre-back will not want to go.
"Maher is going to drop back, which will give Conor Fogarty the chance to get a clean run. He is very athletic, actually more athletic than Fennelly, and he will drive through the middle. It will change the dynamic of Kilkenny’s game, but it will not affect them hurling-wise. Tipp’s Michael Breen is coming into his first All-Ireland final.
"He had a good game against Galway when he got a couple of scores, but he is coming into his first final and being asked to have a massive game. He is not going to get a free role to push forward like he did against Galway, he is going to be caught the other way, possibly with two players coming at him. I think that’s where the twist in the game comes, with that set-up in the middle of the field."