Kilkenny 3-18 Tipperary 0-15
ONE can only visualise what the margin at the end might have been had Kilkenny not been denied so many times in the second half by the absolute brilliance of Brendan Cummins in what was arguably the best exhibition of goalkeeping in more recent times.
It merely prolonged the agony for a Tipperary side which had outplayed the All-Ireland champions for much of the first half except that, fatally, they wasted a succession of good scoring chances.
Once Kilkenny finally gained the initiative through the first of their three goals in the 44th minute, they moved up to a different level.
And, powered by a devastating display of half-back play and the dominance of Derek Lyng at midfield, they rapidly undermined the Tipp challenge.
And they did so without Henry Shefflin having a major influence (even though he finished with 1-5) and DJ Carey's most important contribution amounting to three pointed 65s. Nevertheless, these were crucial scores early in the second half which helped inspire their recovery.
In an interview last week, Brian Cody talked about Kilkenny "breaking the mould" and up to half-time in Croke Park yesterday there was a major doubt about them succeeding. But, in winning - emphatically and with such style - they became the first reigning champions since 1995 (when Offaly beat Down) to get back to the Guinness All-Ireland final. While the first half was ultra-competitive - with scores level seven times in 28 minutes - the game never approached the standard of last season's classic semi-final.
Shefflin, who started in the centre but operated mainly on the right wing, missed a goal chance after two minutes and two minutes later, Eddie Brennan put the ball over the bar when he had time to hit it low. In general play, there was nothing between the sides over the first 15 minutes, even though Brennan in the left corner and Eoin Kelly at right corner-forward for Tipperary both looked threatening.
Significantly, Thomas Dunne was to prove his fitness and acquit himself well at centre-back for Tipp, even though John Hoyne was to emerge as the real star of the Kilkenny attack. And his brother Benny was first to make an impression at midfield before his good work was complemented by Eddie Enright after he settled.
While Tipperary's forwards were penetrating frequently, they were not capitalising on their possession. And they were to be further limited once Kilkenny wing-backs Seán Dowling and JJ Delaney began to assert themselves.
Likewise, at the other end, Paul Kelly started to hit top form for Tipp at left-half, hitting over one gem of a score late in the half. Eamonn Corcoran, too, on the other flank, was hurling consistently.
The Kilkenny management couldn't have been satisfied with the return from their forwards either, even after a few positional alterations. DJ Carey was operating at full-forward when he promised a goal in the 30th minute until Paul Curran got in a despairing tackle from behind to knock the ball off his hurley.
And Shefflin missed a few frees before Paul Kelly's tenacious play limited his role. At the break it was 0-11 to 0-9 for Tipp, with each side having accumulated nine wides.
Brennan almost got through for a goal within 10 seconds of the resumption (as he had done in the Leinster
final), but Cummins brought off the first of a string of outstanding saves. And Carey was denied in the same move after the ball had broken to him.
At the opposite end, James McGarry easily stopped a weak effort from John Carroll - in general play McGarry's handling of the ball was inspirational - before Carey cut through and was narrowly off target with an angled shot. Brennan was again frustrated by Cummins in the 42nd minute before he finally got lucky two minutes later. The champions had finally lifted the siege and, while it was to take them another 10 minutes or so to really get on top, they had been given the psychological boost they needed. From there on, they hurled like winners.
Kilkenny had the ball in the net again in the 49th minute, through Tommy Walsh, whose good work didn't yield much before then. What was extraordinary about this score was that Cummins' goalmouth had literally been bombarded in the lead-up to it. Another fine save was followed by a Shefflin shot taken off the line by corner-back Thomas Costello.
In recent memory, it was the best that the Tipp keeper had performed since the 2001 Vodafone Allstars tour in Argentina.
Remarkably, while there had been never more than two points between the sides up to then, Kilkenny were now four points clear. Now they were hurling so confidently and determinedly matching Tipperary's tigerish approach in the first half and winning so much good possession that they were not going to be stopped. Peter Barry did some terrific work in close exchanges, Michael Kavanagh really opened up and with little or no ball going in to the inside players, James Ryall was well able was well able to cope with the dwindling threat from Eoin Kelly.
Most impressive of all was the tremendous work of Dowling and Delaney in the Kilkenny half-back line and Derek Lyng's mastery of midfield. Martin Comerford, too, did some very good work on the wing and Shefflin was a bigger threat (getting the third goal, later on). But for me, a highly motivated Hoyne was the one who played the really key role, at centre-forward.
* Pat O'Connor's mistakes were confined to the minimum and his overall handling was impressive.
Scorers: Kilkenny H. Shefflin 1-7 (0-5 frees); E. Brennan 1-4; T. Walsh 1-0; D.J. Carey 0-3 seventies; D. Lyng 0-2; J. Hoyne and J. Coogan 0-1 each.
Tipperary: E. Kelly 0-8 (0-6 frees); C. Gleeson 0-2; P. Kelly, J. Carroll, P. O'Meara, E. Enright and P. O'Brien 0-1 each.
KILKENNY: J. McGarry; M. Kavanagh, N. Hickey, J. Ryall; S. Dowling, P. Barry, J.J. Delaney; D. Lyng, P. Mullally; J. Hoyne, H. Shefflin, T. Walsh; D.J. Carey, M. Comerford, E. Brennan. Sub: J. Coogan for Walsh (56th minute).
TIPPERARY: B. Cummins; T. Costello, P. Curran, M. Maher; E. Corcoran, T. Dunne, P. Kelly; E. Enright, B. Dunne; M. O'Leary, C. Gleeson, J. Carroll; E. Kelly, L. Corbett, B. O'Meara (capt.). Subs: N. Morris for Corbett (54th minute); P. O'Brien for O'Leary (59th); B. Horgan for Enright (62nd); D. Kennedy for Costello (64th); E. Brislane for T. Dunne (71st).
Referee: P. O'Connor (Limerick).