By PJ Cunningham
In terms of sheer consistency over the past 20 years, only the All Blacks can compare to the black and amber record.
In terms of humility and ferocity of intent in equal measure, those two teams from totally different sporting backgrounds are also hewn from the same marble.
There is something above and beyond normal values when Brian Cody gives a team the honour of wearing those famed vertical stripes.
Ordinary players find a higher level while gifted players embrace hard work as a platform to elevate their own contributions.
The result is that Kilkenny seldom, if ever, leave anything behind them and the rare losses they endure come about simply because they were not good enough.
And this is where Tipperary comes in. Players from the blue and gold trade off a very high skill mark, but have found it much harder to match their opponents in the hard graft department.
Which in turn is where Liam Sheedy comes in. Other Tipp managers have struggled to get their squads fired up for Kilkenny – but Sheedy has excelled at it.
Even in defeat in 2009, his side matched their more illustrious opponents’ stride for stride until a few refereeing decisions went against them in the closing stages.
What followed though was revenge of the nicest sort – served cold 12 months later when they blew Kilkenny out of the water.
Both Kilkenny and Tipperary were underdogs going into their respective All-Ireland semi-final clashes, with provincial winners Limerick and Wexford last month.
Limerick demolished Tipp in the Munster final and you figured that Cody’s attempt to patch up a team, with only a few genuine stars like Eoin and Paul Murphy and TJ Reid, was bound to fail against John Kiely’s galacticos.
Their belief and intensity, allied to a simple game plan, knocked Limerick sideways and back ways, as the Kilkenny force of will had the players in green doubting their own pedigree long before game’s end.
Similarly, if Tipperary ever wanted an excuse to lie down and die in battle, they got it with 20 minutes to go against Wexford in the other semi.
Hot on the heels of John McGrath seeing red, Lee Chin’s goal shortly afterwards gave the Model men a five-point lead and an extra man going into the last stanzas of the encounter.
There was no hiding place for Tipp in such a situation and those on the pitch manned up wonderfully to outwork and out-think Wexford down the home strait.
The Sheedy factor worked as his demand for honesty and integrity from his players came to the fore. And when that happens, Tipperary are a team that are hard to beat.
This then is the setting for a traditional battle that I believe will also be played along traditional lines.
Yes, both teams will push up to prevent short puck-outs but don’t waste your time scouring defences for sweepers or extra men back there because it won’t happen.
This will be a purist battle between backs seeking to lower the reputations of big name forwards, and forwards trying to outfox defenders to get the scores that matter.
Kilkenny can only win if TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly and Walter Walsh produce the goods, while if Seamus Callanan, John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer and Jason Forde are kept on a tight leash, the Cats will be purring come tea-time on Sunday.
Expect the earth to jolt on its axis around Croker in that defining first quarter where Kilkenny will seek to show the world who is boss, while Tipperary will endeavour to answer back with an ever bigger statement.
Both teams have weaknesses – the full-back lines could have feet of clay if the early ball is played in, and the forward in possession runs at his man.
Reid, Fennelly and Adrian Mullen have penetration in their DNA if given the chance, while for Tipp, Callanan is on such a goal-scoring record that who’s to say he won’t have a nap day against the largely untested Kilkenny last line unit?
Cody will know that if he can keep the Tipp ace quiet, it will go a long way towards winning what would be the sweetest victory of them all for this great hurling motivator.
Half the team at his disposal would not have been subs in the era of Delaney, Walsh, Hogan, Shefflin and Brennan etc, but they have grown in the summer sun to be much greater than the sum of their parts.
If Tipp are to win, they may have to come from behind and show the same doggedness and cussedness in refusing to accept defeat that they displayed against Wexford.
While you can be sure that Kilkenny will turn up with all guns blazing, I don’t have the same confidence that even with Sheedy driving them on, that Tipp will go to the well for the second game in succession and turn water into wine.