IT’S been a year of upsets in the All-Ireland hurling championships.
Last Sunday underdogs Tipperary and Kilkenny ended the three-in-a-row dreams at minor and senior respectively of Galway and Cork, while yesterday, at Croke Park, the U21’s of Tipperary almost made it a hat-trick and came within an ace of upstaging hot favourites Kilkenny in a rip-roaring contest.
It all came down to a last second opportunist goal by young substitute Richie Hogan that saved Kilkenny. But it was nothing less than they deserved.
For nearly ten minutes, defending a one-goal lead given to them in emphatic fashion in the 54th minute by centre-forward Niall Teehan, a heroic Tipperary rearguard had held out against wave after wave of Kilkenny attacks.
Goalkeeper Gerry Kennedy made a double save in the 58th minute that was as fine as anything his senior counterpart Brendan Cummins has made in his long and glittering career and during that period an enthralled crowd in excess of 20,000 also saw several goal-line clearances by a variety of stars in a supercharged Tipp defence.
Full-backs Paddy Stapleton, Alan Byrne and Conor O’Brien all laid their bodies on the line as an increasingly desperate Kilkenny came in search of the equaliser. It was magnificent stuff by two magnificent teams.
Aided by a slight breeze, Kilkenny started in style. Points from wing-forward TJ Reid and senior midfield star James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick gave the Cats a two-point lead after just two minutes. John Tennyson and Richie Power, the other two starters in Kilkenny’s senior win last Sunday, also played well and made significant contributions over the hour. But the fear beforehand, such was the extent of Kilkenny’s favouritism, was that they would romp this game, just as they had done against the same opposition in the final of two years ago.
That start wasn’t the best omen. Soon, however, it emerged that this Tipperary team had come to play.
“It’s a long time since a Tipperary team played with such heart and conviction,” said manager Tom Fogarty and he was spot on.
For the rest of the half, for the rest of the game, indeed, this underrated Tipperary team defined that very word: team. From one end of the superbly-prepared pitch (would that it had been like this for the senior game a week ago) to the other, they hunted in packs, defended in groups of two and three, fought for every ball and chased every cause, lost or otherwise.
By the 28th minute, against the elements and against the odds, they had fought their way to parity at 0-8 apiece.
The bulk of those points, from both sides, had come from placed balls (Cha with five for Kilkenny, Darragh Egan with three and Stephen Lillis with one for Tipperary), but no matter; this had developed into a top-class match between two well-matched sides.
“We were anxious to stay with them until half-time, which we did,” said the Tipperary manager. “There was only a point in it and it could have been a draw.”
At 0-9 to 0-8, with Cha giving Kilkenny the most slender of leads, and with the favouring wind to come, Tipperary fans began to hope.
This wasn’t the Tipperary team Kilkenny had been led to believe would turn up: a lucky, sub-standard side that had struggled to get past Clare and Cork in Munster and that had beaten nobody in the semi-final, crushing Antrim 5-19 to 0-7. This was the real McCoy in the blue-and-gold, a team of talent, purpose and belief.
In those circumstances, Kilkenny could have folded, could have seen their dreams evaporate in the way both Galway and Cork saw their dreams shattered last week, but there was character in these young Cats.
Even as Tipp continued to hurl with conviction and class and took the lead in the 10th minute of the second half with a well-struck 20m free by Darragh Egan, Kilkenny fought their corner and held on.
Halfway through the half, it looked like it was going away from them, with the score at 1-13 to 0-13, but then came a goal from a blistering shot by Richie Power after an inch-perfect pressure-pass by David McCormack.
From there Kilkenny even went ahead with a point from the wing by supersub Richie Hogan and now it was Tipp’s turn to fight back. A point from Egan then that goal by Teehan, and it was all set up for that frantic finish.
Credit — great credit — to two outstanding teams; credit also to referee Michael Haverty who, after a whistle-happy start, went on to play his part in this heart-warming spectacle.
The one unhappy point was a straight red card for Kilkenny sub Maurice Nolan for a dangerous pull on the outstanding Woodlock. It left Kilkenny reduced to 14 with nearly five minutes left to play (including added time) and trying to find that goal.
It speaks volumes then that they did. “Any time you lose a player it’s not good for the team,” said Cha Fitzpartick later, who felt for his team-mate; “The best thing you have out there is each other, but you just have to work harder when something like that happens.”
Working harder is what both of these teams will have to do now for the next week, as they look for that little extra to take them over the line.
What a prospect in store next Saturday.
Scorers: Kilkenny: J. Fitzpatrick 0-6 (all frees); R. Power 1-1; R. Hogan 1-1; A. Murphy 0-3; TJ Reid 0-2; P. Hogan 0-1. Tipperary: D. Egan 1-5 (1-3 frees); N. Teehan 1-1; S. Lillis 0-3 (0-2 frees); J. Woodlock 0-2; D. Sheppard, R. O’Dwyer, D. Young, 0-1 each.
KILKENNY: L. Tierney; K. Joyce, J. Tennyson, S. Cummins; P. Hartley, J. Dalton, D. Fogarty; J. Fitzpatrick, M. Fennelly; TJ Reid, A. Murphy, P. Hogan; A. Healy, R. Power, D. McCormack. Subs: R. Hogan (Healy 40); M. Nolan (P. Hogan 56); B. Beckett (Murphy 59).
TIPPERARY: G. Kennedy; P. Stapleton, A. Byrne, C. O’Brien; D. Young (capt.), JB McCarthy, S. Horan; J. Woodlock, S. Lillis; R. O’Dwyer, N. Teehan, D. Sheppard; R. Ruth, D. Egan, R. McLoughney. Subs: D. Hickey (Ruth 30); D. O’Hanlon (McLoughney 30); K. Quinlan (McCarthy 50).
Referee: M. Haverty (Galway).