DONAL O'GRADY: Kilkenny backs caught by Tipperary tsunami

After 15 minutes, I looked at the scoreboard and it was five points each. It struck me as strange because Tipp had looked far the better team from the start.

They were extremely sharp, with high work-rate and commitment, particularly up front. Their eight first-half wides and one missed free enabled Kilkenny to stay in touch. However, Seamus Callanan, John O’Dwyer and John McGrath moved with purpose and intent from the beginning, striking a phenomenal tally of 2-15 from play.

The Tipp half-forward line created space in front of this trio and they also benefitted from quality deliveries.

As a former defender, I could empathise with the Kilkenny full-back line. They were powerless to stem the strong running tide that was Tipperary. Once any of the Tipp inside forward line moved in a particular direction the ball was played in front of him giving him a huge advantage.

The Tipp forwards constantly rotated positions in the first half, while the Kilkenny defenders stuck to their selected positions. However, they were jittery under pressure and made poor decisions, turning over possession to the hungry Premier attack, whose workrate on and off the ball was of the highest order.

Kilkenny’s attack was struggling too. Tipp conceded easy frees and Seamus Kennedy and Ronan Maher, excellent otherwise, made elementary errors in the first half that kept the Cats in touch. Wing-back Pádraic Maher was inclined to drop back on top of Michael Cahill behind him and Kilkenny fired two points from the breaking ball.

But in the second half, those little errors that pockmarked Tipp’s game in the first period were eliminated and they gave an accomplished, assured performance with Kilkenny having no real answer. Had John McGrath’s or Jason Forde’s finishing been more clinical, the margin of victory would have been considerably greater.

It is impossible for any full-back line to quell the storm that was Tipp yesterday. Patrick ‘Bonnar’ Maher constantly pulled Kilkenny centre-half back Kieran Joyce out of position.

Space was constantly left in front of Seamus Callanan and he capitalised, scoring nine points from play. It was similar for John O’Dwyer and John McGrath, who will surely be Tipp’s player of the year.

Both counties pride themselves on playing ‘traditional hurling’ with sweepers being anathema to the respective managements. However, when Kilkenny got their goal, slightly against the run of play, to lead by two points, their management needed to plug the gaps in front of their besieged full-back line.

In the next ten minutes, Tipp scored 1-7 to a solitary point for the champions. It is always of the highest importance to stem the flow when a defence is bleeding profusely. However, Brian Cody made no moves to shore up his severely pressurised defence.

The Kilkenny management were prepared to tough it out but without the extra body giving their full-back line some much-needed cover it was only a matter of time before the floodgates opened.

With ten minutes left it wasn’t a question of whether Tipp would hold out but how big would be their winning margin. It is said that you never miss the water until the well runs dry.

Michael Fennelly has been playing a certain role for the Noresiders for many years where he drops back into defence at the first signs of danger, denying space to the opposing forwards in front of the Kilkenny goal. His value to Kilkenny defenders over the years was clearly highlighted yesterday.

Colin Fennelly was put through on goal in the first half but he shot into the ground and it was deflected out for a ‘65 by Tipp ‘keeper Darren Gleeson. Kilkenny needed to convert all their chances. TJ Reid and Richie Hogan are superb players but their efforts couldn’t carry their colleagues, as they have done in many games.

Overall, it was a masterclass by Tipp, who brought their Munster Championship form into this encounter.

Manager Michael Ryan’s planning and substitutions worked well. He will be very pleased, not just with the performance yesterday, but with their planning throughout the year. He did not enter the early season Munster tournament, preferring to prepare quietly for the Allianz League.

When he had got what he required from that competition, Tipp exited quietly, keeping ‘powder dry’ for the championship, the only competition that he wanted to win.

His charges arrived in Croke Park yesterday at the peak of their powers and overwhelmed the champions with a display of power and panache built on the foundation of on a superb half-back line display, particularly from Ronan Maher in the centre.

Once ‘Bubbles’ Dwyer hit a screamer to the net with 20 minutes remaining, Tipp played with a freedom and determination seldom seen in All-Ireland finals.

It was all Tipp as they drove forward in waves as, for once, the powerful champions had no answers.

Kilkenny are always dignified in victory and no doubt they will be dignified in defeat.

However, as this match evolved I got the feeling that we were seeing a changing of the guard.


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