The greatest team of all and the greatest manager

This was the first time in my long association with the Irish Examiner I had predicted a draw in a game, and, for a while, as the game was coming to a conclusion, it was beginning to look like I might be proved right.

Well, truth be known – and I have no problem admitting this – I wasn’t even close. Yes, twice in the final minutes Tipperary got the deficit back to a goal and twice Kilkenny managed to get the point to put that little extra daylight between them.

But, Kilkenny were by far the better side yesterday, should have won by far more than four points.

I’ll go as far as to say that this was as complete a performance as I’ve ever seen from a hurling team in Croke Park, from every aspect – mentally, physically, tactically.

This was Kilkenny at their best. I’ll say this also – two inches of hurley in a Kilkenny-man’s hands will do more damage to an opponent than 12 inches of another man’s. And no, I’m not talking about the sly dig, I’m saying that if almost every inch of space has been taken away a Kilkenny-man will still get off a shot, or get in a touch, a block, a deflection.

Boy, do they know how to use a hurley, every inch of it, better than the fellas from any other county.

I want to talk about Brian Cody for a minute. Why is Brian such an outstanding manager? I think one of the main reasons – in fact two of the main reasons – are the men he has with him, Martin Fogarty and Michael Dempsey. They gel so well together these three, work so well together, and I’m certain the satisfaction they’ll get from this win, the pleasure they’ll get from seeing all their work of the past few weeks bear such rich fruit, will give them more enjoyment than any of their previous wins.

Their tactics might seem new, but they are as old as the game itself. Defensively Kilkenny went man-to-man against the Tipperary forwards. The Tipp forwards, as they’ve done a few times this year, gathered in a group at the throw-in and then scattered, attempting to spread a bit of confusion among the Kilkenny backs – there was no confusion.

Jackie Tyrell picked up Lar Corbett, Noel Hickey took up Eoin Kelly, Paul Murphy picked up Seamus Callanan (who was inter-changing with John O’Brien on that wing, Paul swapping with JJ), Brian Hogan picked up whoever was around the middle. Tommy didn’t mind who he was on but stayed with Bonner Maher. Kilkenny won every one of those individual battles. Tactical, yes, but tactics that were there when Lory Meagher was a boy.

In midfield Kilkenny had Michael Fennelly on Shane McGrath, two big men physically, but only one winner, and it was a knockout – oh, what a hit by Michael in the 14th minute, and what a finishing blow for the first Kilkenny goal in the 35th. Then you had Michael Rice, back in his best position and playing his best game ever for Kilkenny. This was a decisive area, won hands-down by Kilkenny. Go to the Kilkenny forwards – Eddie Brennan was seen as a gamble at wing-forward on the Tipperary colossus, Padraic Maher, so much so that most people thought it was a ruse, that Eddie would be somewhere closer to goal.

Not a bit of it – Eddie stayed wing, and outplayed Padraic. His run to set up Richie Hogan’s goal left everyone in his wake – he’s 32, but he’s still ‘fast Eddie’. Now he has eight All-Ireland medals on the field of play, equalling Ring and Doyle.

And we have Henry, another man winning his eighth, put on Tipperary rookie John O’Keeffe, that area then targeted and paying rich dividends. Again, tactical, but again as old as time – pick out the weak link on the opposing team and target him.

Inside, and more praise for the Kilkenny backroom team – how did they get Colin Fennelly ready in time for this game? And he was ready, more than ready, a flyer but also a finisher, and most of all, a typical Fennelly, would die for the Kilkenny cause and got the stitches today to prove that. And he wasn’t the only Kilkenny player prepared to put his body on the line either yesterday. Overall, an outstanding performance, and fair play to Brian Cody and all his team, ALL his team.

What happened Tipperary? I met a group of lads in Dublin on Saturday night – Tom Doherty, Gary Prendergast, Michael Lahart, Seán O’Reilly and Anthony Moloney, the men from Boherlahan-Dualla.

They were in great humour, had great expectations, proud Tipp-men all of them and great company, but they had no idea of what was awaiting them in Croke Park.

I think the same applied to the players. They weren’t ready, and this is best exemplified in the first Kilkenny goal, that quick sideline ball that caught them all napping. That wouldn’t have happened last year.

You get to be All-Ireland champions for a reason, you get to be All-Ireland champions because you made it happen; to remain as All-Ireland champions you have to keep making it happen. Tipp didn’t.

Look, we all know about the Kilkenny injuries last year – did Tipperary take any of that on board? Were they ready for an even greater Kilkenny onslaught this year? They weren’t, they failed to defend their crown, and bitter a pill as this may be for my new Boherlahan-Dualla friends to swallow – for all of Tipperary to swallow – they failed as champions.

There’s no doubt now though about the greatest GAA team of all time, nor the greatest manager.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

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