For a famine it was, even though Liam MacCarthy was absent from the Marble County for only one season.
This contest heralded the return of the old-fashioned and often neglected art of man-marking. Kilkenny, in particular, gave a masterclass in this regard on Saturday. Credit here too to referee Brian Gavin for facilitating such ferocious defending, ferocious tackling. His handling of the game was magnificent.
Kilkenny players were given a simple task of picking up a Tipperary shirt and if their man decided to exit the stadium, then they went with him.
Last year’s free-scoring finals proved that whatever team could best defend would lift the Liam MacCarthy in 2014. Kilkenny, as is usually the case, paid most heed, learned most and adapted best. The management of Brian Cody, Michael Dempsey, Derek Lyng and James McGarry hatched the perfect plan for the replay, one where emphasis rested on defence, and their players executed it to a man. Point out a match-up orchestrated by Cody that didn’t work out.
Kieran Joyce, Paul Murphy, JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Cillian Buckley and Pádraig Walsh all had a job to do and did it very well. The half-back line in particular was so effective in choking the Tipp attack. The Premier front six thrive on space, on open country to run into. Where was the space on Saturday night? Questions were raised of this Kilkenny defence after the drawn encounter. They conceded 1-28, Jackie and JJ turned on several occasions. Was the dam leaking? What a response. Critics silenced. Again.
Further forward, the decision to pull out Richie Power and TJ Reid to the half-forward line for the second period and redeploy Colin Fennelly to the edge of the square was yet another masterstroke by Cody. It changed the dynamic of the Kilkenny forward unit and the two goals were a direct result of these changes.
And what of the return to form of Michael Fennelly, surely the outstanding factor in getting Kilkenny across the line? Fennelly is at his most effective when foraging around the middle. Here, he worked between his own half-back line and midfield. How many times did we see the Ballyhale hurler take a pass deep in his own half to take a colleague out of trouble?
Along with Conor Fogarty, the most underrated man on this Kilkenny team, the pair ensured the midfield battle was Kilkenny’s. And this on an evening where Richie Hogan was off colour.
Tipperary, to be fair, added to this contest. They didn’t shy away from Kilkenny’s ferocious approach and sought to stand toe-to-toe with the Cats in the physical stakes. They fell short by inches, proving, however, there can be no questions over their mental fortitude, their appetite for the big day.
Shane McGrath delivered an impressive first-half display in an area where, overall, Tipp struggled, contributing as he did three points. Why was he taken off? The wrong call. O’Shea could have moved him, but withdrawing him from the field was not the correct call.
Their forward unit were wrapped up by Kilkenny, deprived of oxygen. They had no space in which to operate and were unable to adequately adapt to the hostile environment Kilkenny established. They were fire-fighting from early on.
Seamus Callanan aside, you would have to raise issue with their leadership in attack. Each player fought, but no one was prepared to lead, to throw down the gauntlet to the Kilkenny defence.
On the few occasions they slipped inside the cover, Eoin Murphy proved assured between the sticks. His save at the end was critical. And what of Darren Gleeson’s display at the other end? Fantastic. The goalkeeping All Star award is between these two men.
The one attribute lacking from Tipperary, Kilkenny displayed in bucket loads — leadership. Count the amount of Kilkenny players that stood up to the plate, Richie Power standing tallest. Long-range frees, fighting for possession 40 yards from his own goal. Power delivered at both ends.
There were several Kilkenny people unhappy with the changes made by Cody last Thursday night, unwarranted, they believed. Cody, though, rarely gets his team selection wrong. Bringing Walsh in was required, bringing in Joyce was inspired.
The bravery he showed in removing Richie Hogan from the equation, the hurler of the year in waiting. Other managers would have accommodated Hogan on Saturday night. Not Cody. The fear of losing in the Kilkenny squad drives this manager, drives this team. The famine couldn’t be allowed extend to a second year.
Perhaps Eamon O’Shea should have taken a leaf from Cody’s book and been swifter in using the bench. Certainly, there were one or two players who remained on the field longer than they should.
Since the 2010 All-Ireland final win, Tipperary have failed to take Kilkenny in the championship. In the league, they have managed just one victory. What must they do? Surely doubt must now be seeping into the mindset of the Tipperary hurler as to if they will ever take this Kilkenny team.
Lester Ryan lifted the Liam MacCarthy but I believe that honour should have fallen to JJ Delaney, or at least the two men lifting the cup together as Kerry did last week. Lester was only on the field a few minutes. The man that leads the team out should be the first man up the steps of the Hogan Stand.
You won’t hear much from Kilkenny in the coming weeks. They are probably already plotting the defence of their crown, such is Kilkenny’s way, such is Cody’s way.