Where there’s an iron will, there’s a way

WHAT a contest!

In this the 125th anniversary of the foundation of the GAA, hurling has been crying out for a game to suitably mark that momentous occasion. But all year all we’ve had was mediocrity. Yesterday, however in the All-Ireland final with one team going for an historic four-in-a-row and the other trying desperately to re-establish itself among hurling’s elite, all that was put right.

In front of a full house at Croke Park, two superbly conditioned teams went toe-to-toe from first bell to last, neither side taking a backward step. Seven times they were level in the first half, four times more in the second, a reflection of how evenly matched were these two magnificent teams. As the end-game beckoned, and so finely balanced was the battle that we were wondering if we were going to see the first drawn final in 50 years. That we didn’t, that Kilkenny eventually prevailed, was down to (a) a moment of madness in the 54th minute that saw Tipperary reduced to 14 men and (b) cruel misfortune, as Kilkenny were awarded a hotly-disputed penalty in the 63rd minute, from which came the first goal of the game, dispatched in emphatic fashion by Henry Shefflin.

Most of all, however, it was down, yet again, to the iron will of this Kilkenny team, the team that simply refuses to lose. Surely now it can be said, and without reservation – with the four-in-a-row completed that this is the best hurling team of all time.

This being Tipperary’s first appearance in an All-Ireland final in eight years, as against ten in the last 12 years for the Cats, there was a fear in some quarters that the challengers would be vulnerable to a fast Kilkenny start, the kind of start that had seen Kilkenny blast both Waterford (2008) and Limerick (2007) away in the first quarter in the last two finals. It never happened. Tipperary, in fact, were fastest out of the block; could have given away a goal after a mix-up in the last line of defence in the opening seconds but recovered well, and in a low-scoring opening quarter, led after 14 minutes by two points, 0-3 to 0-1.

Both teams had lined out with major changes to their forward line-ups, Aidan Fogarty the only Kilkenny forward to start as selected, in the left corner. Eddie Brennan and Richie Power – both named as inside-forwards – started on the wings, with Eoin Larkin on the 40, while newcomer Richie Hogan was in the right corner and Shefflin at full-forward. For Tipperary, the most significant move saw Lar Corbett switch from corner-forward to the centre, with Seamus Callanan going to the edge of the square and Eoin Kelly to the right corner. The switches had only limited success for Kilkenny, Brennan was most impressive with three fine first-half points proving his effectiveness out the field, but Larkin, Power, Hogan and Fogarty were all giving best to their markers, while even Henry was being well guarded by hugely impressive youngster Padraic Maher.

For Tipperary, however, there was more success; Lar was on fire, a hat-trick of points of his own while roving far and wide in an attempt to pull Brian Hogan from his comfort zone at centre-back. In fact, all over the pitch Kilkenny were pulled from their comfort zone as Tipperary tested them in ways they haven’t experienced since their great rivalry with Cork up to 2006. From very early on it was apparent this was going to be a cracker.

Inspired by the brilliant Tommy Walsh at wing-back, Kilkenny recovered from that early deficit, led after 18 minutes (0-6 to 0-4), but that was only temporary. From there to the end of a first half that was played at breakneck pace, the teams traded blow for blow. Kelly (8) and Corbett (3) were doing all the scoring for Tipperary; Shefflin and Brennan doing the bulk in reply for Kilkenny and the champions were marginally ahead at the break, 0-13 to 0-11, as we all paused for breath.

The second half continued where the first had let off, Tipperary taking the lead with a three-point burst as a hitherto subdued Seamus Callanan announced his presence. It would have been a goal and three but for a superb point-blank save by PJ Ryan from Callanan in the 37th, the first of four that PJ would make.

Those scores, however, and the goal-chances now being created, signalled the resolve of Tipperary. As the half progressed, an upset was looking more likely and by the 59th minute, PJ having been called on again with two more breath-taking saves, it was the underdogs in control, three points to the good (0-20 to 0-17). That was after sub Benny Dunne had seen red for a dangerous pull under a dropping ball on Tommy Walsh, but it didn’t seem to unsettle the Tipp men as they kept their pedal to the metal.

Then came the game’s defining moment. Given the closeness of the exchanges, a goal was always going to be pivotal; that it would come courtesy of a disputed refereeing decision was unfortunate, for both referee Diarmuid Kirwan and Tipperary. Bearing down on goal from about the 20m line, Richie Power was hauled back by a desperate Paul Curran, but outside the critical red-zone penalty area. Richie powered on, however, and by the time Kirwan’s whistle had sounded he was inside the 13m line, and the official awarded a penalty. Sheffling stepped forward, and with nerve and accuracy, rifled his shot past the despairing Tipp three-man wall.

Only seven minutes to go, 1-19 to 0-21, for the first time since the opening minutes of the half Kilkenny were now back in front, and the stands rocked to the roars from their huge support; a minute later it was even louder, the second Kilkenny goal, and it was the killer. Started, fittingly enough, with the most experienced Kilkenny player on the field, corner-back Michael Kavanagh (his tenth final, his seventh medal) who delivered a superb clearance out of defence. Eoin Larkin picked up, headed for goal, parted to substitute Martin Comerford, who gave Brendan Cummins no chance from close quarters. That goal put Kilkenny four points clear, and mightily as Tipperary tried for the remaining minutes they just could not close that gap. A long-range bomb from Jackie Tyrell and a brace from Larkin tidied things up for Kilkenny.

Hats off then to Kilkenny, four-in-a-row, worthy champions yet again. Hats off also to Tipperary; they did themselves proud yesterday, but more than that, they did hurling proud and gave us all the final we had craved.

They will be back, no doubt about it.

Scorers for Kilkenny: H. Shefflin 1-8 (1-0 pen, 0-7 frees); E. Brennan 0-3; E. Larkin 0-3; M. Comerford 1-0; R. Hogan 0-2; J. Tyrell, T. Walsh, D. Lyng, R. Power, TJ Reid, M. Fennelly, 0-1 each.

Scorers for Tipperary: E. Kelly 0-13 (0-7 frees, 0-3 65’s); L. Corbett 0-4; S. Callanan 0-3; N. McGrath 0-2; S. McGrath 0-1.

Subs for Kilkenny: TJ Reid (Fogarty 50); M. Fennelly (Lyng 52); M. Comerford (R. Hogan 54).

Subs for Tipperary: B. Dunne (O’Brien 47); W. Ryan (Kerwick 65); M. Webster (Woodlock 69).

Referee: D. Kirwan (Cork).