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Kilkenny’s day, Kilkenny’s era

KILKENNY, then.

The what-ifs and the well-thens and the on-the-other-hands lurked all week but for the well-read in attendance at Croke Park yesterday the scene was right out of Carlyle: the coming time already waits, unseen, yet definitely shaped, predetermined, and inevitable.

Kilkenny won a hard All-Ireland hurling final in a familiar way, the way they have won for a decade and more: through merciless tackling, through consummate skill, through correct option-taking — and above all, through hunger.

How else do you explain Henry Shefflin, seven All-Ireland medals making the shelves creak in Ballyhale, hunting down Tipperary defenders with seconds left in yesterday’s final? Kilkenny boasted a total of 63 Celtic crosses in their starting 15, yet they had more appetite than their opponents.

Ask Tipp boss Declan Ryan. "We were second best to Kilkenny," said Ryan. "They seemed to be the hungrier team. They’ve set the standard since the late 90s and hats off to them. We were blown out of it in a couple of tackles and I suppose that’s down to attitude, maybe hunger.

"Kilkenny have shown the savage hunger in this group and they showed it again today. We probably failed to cope with it in the first half, though we got to grips with it some bit in the second half."

Ryan’s analysis was correct. The cliche is to say that a team began a game at 100 miles per hour, but Kilkenny would have gathered far more penalty points if they started like that on any paved surface in the country. They flew into the game and ran out to a three-point lead on the back of some ferocious tackling: on 13 minutes Michael Fennelly upended Shane McGrath with a shoulder and from the resultant turnover Richie Power made it a four-point lead.

Even before that the decider, played out before 81,214 spectators, had been different in quality to the previous two finals, as almost everyone in Ireland had claimed it would be. It began in darkness, for instance, with the floodlights blazing, though the sun emerged before the end to give us natural shadows; we also had the rare phenomenon of two teams lining up as per the programme, 15 on 15.

In that sense, it was an endorsement of Kilkenny rather than Tipperary. It meant that the Leinster side had the match-ups they were looking for, as Kilkenny manager Brian Cody confirmed afterwards.

"We sat down and looked at Tipperary," said Cody. "It would have been childish of us if we hadn’t. We looked at our best possible opportunity to win the game — well, you can’t really plan to win the game, but our best possible chance of performing at a level to give us a chance to win the game.

"We did what we did, it was well defined, well thought out, and the players are a huge part of that, as they were before, in similar situations."

Those match-ups worked well for Tipperary. Jackie Tyrrell had a good day on Lar Corbett, while Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney were regal at wing-back on a succession of opponents, even allowing for Walsh’s temporary problems with Patrick Maher.

And that gave Kilkenny the platform. Tipperary couldn’t make the passes stick up front, leading to mounting pressure on their own rearguard. Eventually it broke.

Clever interplay with a quick sideline cut ended with Richie Hogan placing Michael Fennelly for a goal before the break: if it had been Friday night at the Aviva the quickest cliche to hand would have been ‘straight off the training pitch’.

At the break it was 1-8 to 0-6, though matters improved for Tipperary somewhat in the second half. They managed to get a foothold in the Kilkenny half but suffered another blow on 48 minutes: a Colin Fennelly hand-pass freed Eddie Brennan, who tore through the Tipp defence before popping the ball inside. Richie Hogan buried the ball in the corner of the net without handling it, and as an unconscious homage to Lar Corbett’s game-deciding goal last year, it was a fine tribute.

And yet, and yet, and yet: Tipp came back. They couldn’t keep the ball in the Kilkenny half and more than once they authored their own downfall with misguided hand-passes, yet they stayed close enough to smell the Cats’ exhaust fumes.

When Kilkenny finally took the wrong option, Tipp counter-punched: Michael Fennelly shot for goal when a point was on but Brendan Cummins saved and launched it downfield. Patrick Maher gave Lar Corbett a low ball, and he laid it off to Pa Bourke for a goal that might scupper David Herity’s chances of an All-Star.

It made for, well, ‘gripping’ would overstate the finale. Say ‘firmly-held’ instead. With 70 minutes on the clock there were only three points in it, but Tipp didn’t look like snatching a draw. Kilkenny didn’t look in the mood to let them.

The Premier County will have regrets this morning. The insinuation that last year’s title is somehow undervalued by yesterday’s defeat is a loose stroke: you can only win one All-Ireland in one year, and their age profile suggests that they will come again.

But it was Kilkenny’s day. Kilkenny’s era.

"This is by far our best achievement, beyond a shadow of a doubt," said Cody, and it was easy to see why. They overcame the doubts raised by a heavy league final defeat to stride to glory, elevating the likes of Shefflin, Hickey, Brennan and Kavanagh to the eight All-Irelands club.

Their place in the pantheon has been safe for some time. Yesterday just confirmed their place in the seating plan for greatest team of all time. At the head of the table, if you need to ask.