After all the new money and massive entertainment on show this spring, the final now is an old-money showdown between Kilkenny and Tipp, writes Anthony Daly

In his book, Tony Griffin talked about his perfect emotional state in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny, when he produced one of his best performances for Clare.

“I just had to get out of my own way and let the game flow,” wrote Tony.

Saturday night in Thurles reminded me of that. The atmosphere in the place was electric. The quality of hurling on the pitch was almost touching the heavens. Guys were just cutting loose, and completely expressing themselves. And everyone was just getting out of their own way and letting the game, and the magic, flow.

When I was driving home afterwards, that great line from another former Clare team-mate Niall Gilligan, when we were chatting about the close ones, came into my head. “Ant, a thousand mad things happen. And then somebody just wins.”

That summed up this Limerick-Tipperary battle. An epic. A classic. Mad stuff, altogether. Under a full moon on a beautiful spring evening, the only thing missing was the howling noise of a werewolf. The night had everything else.

Some of the scores were of a glorious standard. You’d walk barefoot over broken glass to see Ronan Maher nail a sideline cut over the bar from what seemed like somewhere out around Upperchurch.

Jason Forde’s two goals in extra-time finally blew the game apart but, just as they had done all evening, Limerick kept going, and never gave up. Trailing by seven points with three minutes left in extra-time, they got it down to three within a minute and then nearly wiped out that deficit when Tom Morrissey had a goal chance saved by Darragh Mooney.

Tipp’s economy was just that bit greater throughout. That was reflected in the half-time stats when Tipp had nailed 12 of 13 scoring chances whereas Limerick had converted just 10 of 21. Tipp always seemed to be able to get that score that bit easier too just after Limerick had landed a mammoth point.

That is just down to belief. Despite all the firepower they have on the sideline, every Tipp forward still seems to think, ‘I play for Tipp, therefore I score.’ Limerick don’t have that tradition or conviction. Yet. They just have to stay at it, and in fairness, they’re doing a good job at it.

Pat Ryan’s levelling point on 56 minutes epitomised Limerick’s progress. It had Paul Kinnerk’s stamp with the Clare U21s and seniors all over it; Limerick protected and moved the ball intelligently before it was diagonally sprayed across the field to Ryan. Limerick nearly got it done but for growing and developing teams, these experiences against the big guns provide the real crucible of practice and learning. Wexford have beaten Kilkenny often enough over the last year to know that they’re just as good as them but they were just flat yesterday. And flat never works against Kilkenny.

After leading 1-2 to 0-1, Wexford didn’t score again for 20 minutes. Wexford had a mini comeback in the second half but after Rory O’Connor — who was Wexford’s best player — missed a 20-metre free, Kilkenny came up the field and hit four points on the bounce to put the game to bed.

Kilkenny swamped Wexford all afternoon but, the more these teams play each other too, the more Brian Cody and his players seem to be learning about how to beat Wexford. Unlike last year’s championship, they played the ball around the sweeper Shaun Murphy with angled deliveries. You even saw Kilkenny defenders play the ball back to goalkeeper Eoin Murphy on a number of occasions, something you’d never have seen in the past because it was anathema to Cody’s direct and route one style.

That shows an evolution in Kilkenny’s style but the evolution is mainly happening via personnel. Some of the new and younger players are clearly improving and gaining in confidence. John Donnelly was really impressive. Martin Keoghan was even better. Richie Leahy is continuing to lead and to make big plays.

Wexford couldn’t keep pace or match Kilkenny’s stride but they looked leggy and were never at the same pitch. It is hard for Wexford to keep producing big displays, especially after such a huge performance last week against Galway, but that is the test now ahead of the summer. You will see a different Wexford then but they will also have to learn to deal with the challenges that their new profile, and the expectation that goes with it, now brings. They flattened the long grass around them long ago but you just don’t know if a bumper crowd, a 15-minute delay to the match, and the mass local expectation of beating Kilkenny and reaching a national final got in on some fellas’ psyche. In any case, Davy Fitz will seek to address any such concerns over the next few weeks.

After all the new money and massive entertainment on show this spring, the final now is an old-money showdown between Kilkenny and Tipp. A few weeks back, both were nearly written off, facing potential relegation but their renaissance with so many new players on board has provided another portal into the absolute magic this summer is certain to provide.

I can’t wait. I’ve great respect for rugby players and what they put their bodies through but the sooner this Champions Cup is over, the better.

I can’t get my head around fellas applauding lads kicking the ball into the crowd. Give me Ronan Maher driving it the other way, over the bar to boot. All day. Every day. Because that’s real entertainment. And real magic.


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