IT was a grey day in Croke Park yesterday for this All-Ireland hurling final, damp and dull with light rain sporadically falling on a stadium already shrouded in mist – that’s for the weather-watchers however.
On the pitch, where it all matters, Kilkenny were attempting to create history in their drive for five All-Ireland SHC titles in a row and Tipperary were trying to avoid the agony of a second successive final loss.
It was thunder and lightning from the throw-in with sparks flying as two turbo-charged teams went full-on at each other. Bone-shuddering hits were given and taken, the pace was ferocious, the intensity was massive. This was what a final should be with the two best teams in hurling going toe-to-toe for 70 plus minutes producing five goals and 35 points. Credit both teams and credit referee Michael Wadding who merits mention for the sensible and fair way he allowed the players go about their business. While the near 82,000 crowd didn’t see history being made, the team of the ages denied, they did get to see a game for the ages. A distinct impression, too, of the baton being passed with this Tipperary team boasting five U21s in the starting line-up and another introduced before game’s end. Another dynasty in the making?
Kilkenny started with John Tennyson and Henry Shefflin at centre-back and centre-forward respectively, both deemed fit to start despite suffering cruciate ligament injuries in recent times. Tennyson lasted the full game; Shefflin, however, managed just 14 minutes before pulling up.
No team can simply shrug off the loss of a guy who leads the all-time scoring list and is still in his prime, and Henry Shefflin is both.
Did it effect the outcome? At that stage Tipperary had already established themselves as the team with the greater hunger, the team with the greater resolve. Even as Henry limped off, to a tremendous ovation from friend and foe alike, Tipperary were six points in front (1-4 to 0-1) and a lot of questions were in the process of being answered. Would Tipperary be able to match Kilkenny for intensity, for physicality? Would their half-back line be able to hold the first line of defence? Would their midfield match the powerful Kilkenny pair of Michael Fennelly and Cha Fitzpatrick? Would they manage to score the goals they failed to score in last year’s final? Yes, on all counts.
Brendan Maher was outstanding in midfield, captain Eoin Kelly had three points from frees, John O’Brien had another, and Lar Corbett had a goal – the first of three for the flying Thurles Sars star on the day.
From that position Tipp drove on and though Kilkenny fought back to within three points in the 27th minute, mainly through Richie Power, who had taken over the free-taking duties from the departed Shefflin, the challengers had it back to six again within another five minutes. That was due to a veritable howitzer from a free inside his own 45m line by goalkeeper Brendan Cummins, then one apiece from Gearoid Ryan and O’Brien again.
The period just before the interval is one of the purple periods, always, with this Kilkenny team, however, and a hat-trick of points (all by Power) had them back within a point at the break (1-10 to 1-9).
Now came even bigger questions for Tipperary, and when Kilkenny drew level within a few minutes of the restart (sublime sideline cut by team captain TJ Reid), it looked like it was just going to be the same old story, the one we’ve seen so many times over the last all-conquering four seasons for the Cats – team stays with them for a long period, then gradually, inevitably, they apply their pressure, pull level and draw away.
But not yesterday, not against this fired-up Tipperary team. A point from Kelly (seven from seven on the day, and his work-rate was simply phenomenal), was followed by two rapid goals. Corbett had his second after a mighty centre by the roving Gearoid Ryan was passed off by the precocious Noel McGrath before the young tyro punished Kilkenny indecision and flicked to the net moments later.
From level pegging to seven points clear in just three minutes, (3-11 to 1-10), the pendulum had swung Tipperary’s way, but just as you thought it was time to start writing Kilkenny’s obituary, back they came and it was back again to one goal.
Significantly, however, each of those Kilkenny points had to be chiselled from the rock-like Tipperary defence, Stapleton, Curran and Cahill in a tigerish full-back line, Fanning, O’Mahony and Maher the wall outside them.
Yet another Kelly pointed free steadied the Tipperary ship, and though TJ Reid managed to cancel that out almost immediately, that was it for Kilkenny. In the final ten minutes Tipp again took control; substitutes Seamus Callanan (two magnificent points), Benny Dunne and Seamus Hennessey all had points, Corbett completed his hat-trick after an on-his-knees handpass from Patrick Maher. Game over.
No question about the merit of the winners, no question either about the merit of the team they dethroned. Hail Tipperary, hail Kilkenny – champions, both.
Tipperary: Brendan Cummins (0-1); Paddy Stapleton, Paul Curran, Michael Cahill; Declan Fanning, Conor O'Mahony, Padraic Maher; Brendan Maher (0-2), Shane McGrath; Gearóid Ryan (0-1), Patrick Maher, John O'Brien (0-2); Noel McGrath (1-0), Eoin Kelly (0-7), Lar Corbett (3-0). Subs: Conor O'Brien, Seamus Callanan (0-2), Benny Dunne (0-1), David Young, Seamus Hennessy (0-1).
Kilkenny: PJ Ryan; John Dalton, Noel Hickey, Jackie Tyrrell; Tommy Walsh, John Tennyson, JJ Delaney; James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick, Michael Fennelly; TJ Reid (0-4), Henry Shefflin (0-1), Eoin Larkin; Eddie Brennan, Richie Power (1-9), Aidan Fogarty (0-1). Subs: Michael Rice (0-1), Derek Lyng (0-1), Martin Comerford, Richie Hogan, John Mulhall (0-1).
Referee: M Wadding (Waterford).