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The greatest of champions reclaim crown

ALL hail magnificent Kilkenny after this, their eighth All-Ireland title in the past 12 seasons.

All hail manager Brian Cody who has led and inspired them through all of those triumphant seasons.

All hail regal Henry Shefflin and speedy Eddie Brennan who both played in all those wins and in the process have equalled the record of two of the giants of hurling, Christy Ring and John Doyle.

Let there be no doubt, in what has been the greatest era for any team in the history of this ancient sport of the Gael we’re witnesses to greatness.

This wasn’t the high-scoring classic of the last two years involving both these teams. For intensity, however, for concentration, for hard hitting, for the quality of the scores that were chiselled from two mean defences — the two Kilkenny goals especially — this was the match of anything we’ve seen for decades.

And the players. Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett are themselves two forwards of rare and enduring talent but yesterday they ran into a Kilkenny defence with four guys who would come close to making any all-time All Star side.

Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney — you’ve heard of those? Noel Hickey, Jackie Tyrell, how far behind are they? And then you look at the other two members of the Kilkenny sextet, newcomer Paul Murphy at corner-back, pushing Tommy and JJ for man of the match, and captain fantastic at centre-back, Brian Hogan. Behind them stood a very modern sweeper/keeper, David Herity — what chance any forward line of scoring on that lot? What chance especially when they’re prepared to do anything to prevent those scores, to prevent goals especially, illustrated by the cynical but absolutely necessary foot-trip by Hickey on Patrick Bonner just before half time.

Had Kilkenny conceded at that stage who knows what might have happened. But they didn’t.

From the opening minutes yesterday it was obvious that this wasn’t going to be the sort of free-wheeling, high-scoring encounter of 2010. It took Tipp to the 16th minute to register their first score and even then it was just a point, a fine effort by Noel McGrath, on the run from wide left. At that stage though, Kilkenny were already five in front — Henry Shefflin (two), Richie Power, Eoin Larkin, Richie Hogan — but more ominously, they were hurling with a ferocity, with a determination, with a concentration that Tipperary just couldn’t match.

Jackie Tyrell dominated Lar Corbett, dogging his every footstep; Noel Hickey was too powerful for Eoin Kelly, Paul Murphy too fast in hand, foot and thinking for Seamus Callanan, while in the half row, Tommy Walsh was simply omnipresent, tidying up everything, and though Tipp’s Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher never quit, the mighty man from Tullaroan stamped his genius all over this final, as did JJ Delaney on the opposite wing.

Hogan was the defensive linchpin — unlike last year there was no Central Avenue opening up for Tipperary yesterday, and when this Premier team doesn’t score goals, it tends to struggle.

Midfield was another area dominated by Kilkenny, Michael Fennelly horsing everything out of his way, but also showing the hurling acumen to race through on to Richie Hogan’s fine layoff for the first Kilkenny goal, after Tipp had been caught napping by Eoin Larkin and Henry Shefflin with a quick sideline ball in the 35th minute.

That was such an emphatic score, not just because it put Kilkenny 1-7 to 0-4 ahead coming up to half time (though there would be five minutes added after a freak nose injury suffered by referee Brian Gavin, victim of a ‘loose’ Tommy Walsh swing when he came in to break up a fracas), but because it illustrated a) how focused Kilkenny were and b) how off-focus were Tipperary.

Mind you, had Hickey not managed that trip on Maher a few minutes later all that early dominance may have been for nought; as it was Kilkenny went in at the break leading by five points, 1-8 to 0-6.

The second half was a continuation of the Kilkenny dominance and when Richie Hogan goaled in the 49th minute to make it 2-12 to 0-10 (a goal of beauty too, created by the pace of Colin Fennelly and Eddie Brennan down the right wing, finished superbly off the stick) it even looked like we might have a rout on our hands.

That we didn’t was due as much to Kilkenny carelessness as it was to Tipperary resolve.

Looking for a killer goal, a poor enough shot by Michael Fennelly, easily saved by Brendan Cummins, came Tipperary’s goal at the other end, Lar Corbett setting up sub Pa Bourke, and from a situation where they should have been home and dry entering the final furlong, Kilkenny suddenly found themselves under pressure.

Their response was impressive. Twice Tipp came to within a goal, twice Kilkenny immediately responded with points, through Shefflin and Larkin.

So, all hail the new champions, all hail Kilkenny 2011, champions of champions.

Scorers for Kilkenny: H Shefflin 0-7 (5f); R Hogan 1-1; M Fennelly 1-0; E Larkin; R Power; C Fennelly 0-2 each; E Brennan, M Rice, TJ Reid 0-1 each.
Scorers for Tipperary: E Kelly 0-8 (7f, 1 65); N McGrath 0-3 (1s/l); P Bourke 1-0; G Ryan 0-2; J O’Brien, B Dunne, C O’Mahony, 0-1 each.

Subs for Kilkenny: TJ Reid (Brennan 60); J Mulhall (R Hogan 65).

Subs for Tipperary: B Maher (O’Keeffe 29); B Dunne (S McGrath 35); P Bourke (Callanan 35); D Young (O’Mahony 58); J O’Neill (O’Brien 66).

Referee: B Gavin (Offaly).