Three things we’ve learned from the league

Irish Examiner columnist, Donal O'Grady, lists three things we have learned from this year's National Hurling League campaign.

1. Finals are not a barometer for Munster teams

So the league has concluded but does it provide a signpost for ultimate championship honours in September? The league final stats for the last 20 years make interesting reading.

Kilkenny have made ten final appearances, winning seven and have won seven All-Irelands in the same year they contested a league final.

However, when you look at Munster counties in the same 20-year period there is a huge contrast. Munster teams contested 19 league finals but of those only three sides made the All-Ireland final the same year.

Having been beaten in the league final in 1995 Clare went on to win the All-Ireland; Tipperary defeated Galway in 2001, after beating Clare in the league decider that year and in 2009 Tipp lost a league and All-Ireland decider to Kilkenny.

The stats would appear to be heavily weighed against Munster teams contesting the league final if they have All-Ireland final ambitions. Tipperary, for instance, have only done the double once.

There’s no doubt the earlier rounds of the Munster championship in that period were far more competitive and going all out for a league win can divert a team’s focus while opponents wait quietly in the wings with little pressure. Expectations in the earlier rounds in Leinster were not nearly as intense over the same period.

2. Tactics are here to stay

On Saturday we referred to the last time Martin Fogarty managed a winning team in Nowlan Park – the 2004 U-21 All-Ireland final win over Tipperary which was very tactical. Yesterday’s game was similar.

The days of teams lining out as per the programme are long gone. Fogarty’s switch of Michael Fennelly to centre forward, with Michael Rice going to midfield was a masterstroke as Kilkenny faced a fresh breeze.

Fennelly’s two well taken goals made the difference. His direct running and support play caused all sorts of problems for his marker, Pádraic Maher, and he hit 2-3 in that first-half.

Surprisingly, Rice was at wing forward and Fennelly reverted to midfield in the second half in another tactical switch.

Tipperary were very tactical as well. They played the first-half with the breeze but used a three-man midfield, withdrawing Noel McGrath to supplement Shane McGrath and Brendan Maher.

Kilkenny counteracted it by playing Aidan Fogarty as their own third midfielder. Tipperary were hoping would create space as they knew they’d need goals to beat Kilkenny. However, it didn’t work as they had one goal chance and it wasn’t created by any tactical tricks so much as conjured up by great fielding from Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher.

Some hurling fans bemoan the lack of direct hurling up and down the field but tactics are a part of all serious games and that’s unlikely to change.

3. Kilkenny will just get better

Winning games is all about winning the little battles over the field. Early in the game, when the intensity was at is greatest, there were tussles on the ground for possession and Kilkenny won them with Kieran Joyce emerging from rucks, raising the support decibels from the home fans.

Lester Ryan also knocked Tipp’s Shane Bourke over the line with an old-fashioned shoulder which again got the Noreside support involved.

In the second half, during a ground tussle in front of the Kilkenny goal, wing-forward Eoin Larkin emerged with the ball and passed sideways to Aidan Fogarty, who was back in support.

Tipperary needed to win these physical contests to win the game. There was a passage of play for nearly three minutes just before JJ Delaney and Lar Corbett were sent off when the ball went from 45 to 45 with various players hooked, blocked and body-tackled fairly, with full commitment from the players.

The red cards killed the momentum for ten minutes as, in the context of the game, they weren’t needed and Lar may have grounds for an appeal.

While Tipperary’s defence did enough collectively to please manager Eamon O’Shea; their failure to create any goal chances will occupy his mind. But Kilkenny’s management will be delighted, taking into consideration they had Richie Power, Walter Walsh, TJ Reid and Henry Shefflin in their tracksuits in the stand.

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