KILKENNY became the first county in the history of the GAA to win four All-Ireland hurling titles in the one year when their Under-21 side beat Tipperary in a magnificent Bord Gais final at Croke Park yesterday.
On the balance of play they just about deserved the grand slam, but Tipperary can take a lot of positives from a game that hung on a knife edge after the Munster champions had whittled down a six point half-time deficit to just two with minutes to go.
Indeed the mood in the Tipperary camp at the final whistle was one of frustration at some of the refereeing decisions, but while no one was prepared to go on the record, it was clear they were very unhappy with James Owens’ decision to award Kilkenny a free out after Patrick Maher had a couple of defenders hanging off him as he made his way towards goal.
Earlier the Wexford official had penalised substitute John Ryan — who had won a great ball after chasing his man half the length of the field — only to have a free awarded against him which Richie Hogan pointed.
However in the final analysis the old adage of goals winning matches again rang true. Kilkenny grabbed a brace from the hugely impressive Matthew Ruth and they were grateful to their own goalkeeper Colin McGrath who kept his goal intact with a couple of superb saves.
Kilkenny had the opening score after just 20 seconds when Ruth pointed but it was Tipp who made the early running. Hurling with tremendous determination, they drew level after a minute when Shane Bourke pointed, and then stormed into a 0-3 to 0-1 lead by the fifth minute.
Tipp’s early dominance was reflected, not alone on the scoreboard but throughout the field, and it took an excellent save by Kilkenny ‘keeper Colin McGrath to deny Patrick Maher a goal.
The pace of the game was electrifying and the skill factor superb and it made for a great contest between two hugely talented sides despite the greasy underfoot conditions from the persistent drizzle which fell.
Despite their early dominance Tipp weren’t defending very well. Corner forward Ruth, who regularly inter-changed with wing forward TJ Reid, tied the game with two points in quick succession before the potency of the Kilkenny attack was seen to great effect.
Great work by Reid set up Ruth for a goal in the 15th minute and they should have had another a minute later when Nicky Cleere was left one on one with the Tipp goalkeeper but he delayed his shot and the chance was lost.
The pressure on the Tipp defence was enormous and only great play by Padraig Maher and Thomas Stapleton prevented them from falling further behind.
However, the cracks were appearing and after Kilkenny eased 1-7 to 0-5 in front, they again found the Tipp net for a rather fortuitous goal in the 30th minute. It came following a huge free by centre back Paddy Hogan from his own half back line and the sliothar broke to his brother Richie who put Ruth in.
Despite the best efforts of Tipp ‘keeper Mathew Ryan to keep Ruth’s shot out, he only succeeded in hitting it off the corner forward and the ball trickled over the line which helped his side into a comfortable 2-7 to 0-7 half time lead.
There was a massive improvement in Tipperary on the changeover, particularly in defence where full back Padraig Maher and corner back Kevin Maher were superb, and the introduction of John O’Keeffe helped to steady the ship still further.
Like Kilkenny had done in the opening half, Tipp began to win primary possession from the air, and with Pa Bourke unerring from play and frees, they had the deficit down to a goal 10 minutes into the second half.
Kilkenny had drifted out of the game with little or no return from either of their county seniors, TJ Reid and Richie Hogan, apart from a point by the latter in the 42nd minute, and with Tipperary doing all the hurling, the dream of the grand slam was beginning to look like just that, a dream.
With the Kilkenny forwards unable to make any impression, Tipp poured forward and the Leinster champions were grateful for some superb defending by full back Kieran Joyce and his left corner colleague Eoin O’Shea.
At the end of the third quarter Kilkenny held a four point lead thanks to an excellent point by the busy John Mulhall, now operating out on the 40, but they were left off the hook in the 49th minute by a dreadful miss by Tipp’s Seamus Callinan& who, unmarked inside the Kilkenny defence and with only the goalkeeper to beat, failed to strike the sliotar cleanly giving Colin McGrath little difficulty in saving the shot.
Undeterred, Tipp came again and as the tension mounted and the clock counted down, they reduced the deficit to two points with three minutes of normal time left.
Then came the real talking point. Patrick Maher won possession on the Kilkenny 20 metre line and headed for goal, but with at least two defenders hanging off him, the referee penalised him for over-carrying and from that let-off, TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly ensured it was going to be Kilkenny’s day with a point each.
Scorers for Kilkenny: M Ruth 2-2; R Hogan 0-5 (f); TJ Reid, J Mulhall 0-2 each; N Cleere, N Walsh 0-1 each.
Tipperary: P Bourke 0-8 (0-7f); G Ryan 0-3; S Bourke, K Lanigan, S Callinan, B Maher 0-1 each.
KILKENNY: C McGrath; P Murphy, K Joyce, E O’Shea; L Ryan, P Hogan, N Prendergast; J Dowling, N Walsh; C Fennelly, N Cleere, TJ Reid; M Ruth, J Mulhall, R Hogan.
Subs: JJ Farrell for Cleere (35); J Maher for Dowling (52); M Bergin for Farrell (60).
TIPPERARY: M Ryan; M Cahill, Padraig Maher, K Maher; K Lanigan, T Stapleton, B Maher; G Ryan; S Hennessy; Patrick Maher, S Callinan, T McGrath; P Bourke, M O’Meara, S Bourke.
Subs: J O’Keeffe for Lanigan (31); D O’Hanlon for O’Meara (38); J Ivors for S Bourke (46); J Ryan for T McGrath (49).
Referee: J Owens (Wexford).