The light may be getting dimmer on this Kilkenny team but they are raging wildly against it.
Cast as dead men walking, they did a remarkable impression of a side who couldn’t be further from the skids.
They did need assistance, though. More than a qualifier and more than a feeling those of a black and amber persuasion in the 23,307 crowd played their part in this victory.
Few teams have ever enjoyed such fervent support in a qualifier but then fewer teams needed it as much as this Kilkenny group following their Leinster Championship exit to Dublin seven days earlier.
Just how much did this mean to them? Brian Cody’s jubilant reaction with his management team indicated plenty. A resurgent Waterford wait in the wings but they could wait — this was an event all on its own.
Kilkenny may yet suffer an earlier finish to their Championship than they have been accustomed to but here they were born again with their defence looking most Lazarus-like. The tenacious Paul Murphy, the stoic Jackie Tyrrell playing just 60% of his capacity but what a 60%, the tidy Kieran Joyce, the wily Tommy Walsh, the defiant JJ Delaney and the totemic Brian Hogan... a unit of unbridled stubbornness and brilliance.
A further indication of Kilkenny’s renaissance came with the deafening reaction to Henry Shefflin’s appearance as a substitute, a cacophony that will be hard matched when Bruce Springsteen fills Nowlan Park later this month.
With just two points the difference when he appeared in the 65th minute, the heralding of his arrival couldn’t have been better timed and his pass for Richie Power’s 69th minute point was treasured as much as the score itself.
It’s scant consolation for Tipperary but for a team that has only beaten Kilkenny once in the Championship since their rivalry took on a life of its own in 2009, the Cats garner a massive sense of achievement from beating their neighbours and rivals.
It was a close-run thing and Kilkenny, despite their high wide count, had lived dangerously. But as Omar says in The Wire, if you come at the king, you best not miss.
The truism of bad things coming in threes applied to the visitors. In this their third consecutive Championship defeat (a run of poor form not seen since 1978-80) also being their third in-a-row to the neighbours, the game hinged on a trio of missed chances by Eoin Kelly in just over a minute of early second-half action.
Having been off-target with a free in the 40th minute, Kelly’s shot at Eoin Murphy’s goal was deflected over the end-line by Delaney’s arm.
In many ways the attempt resembled that of Kelly’s Mullinahone clubman Johnny Leahy’s late chance in the 1997 All-Ireland final, which Davy Fitzgerald was equal to.
To make matters worse, Kelly sent the resultant 65 wide and when he retired to be replaced by Brian O’Meara in the 64th minute it felt like a last goodbye to a hurler who’s battled chronic back issues in recent times.
Lar Corbett’s 29th minute injury followed by Richie Hogan’s equaliser threatened to be a turning point — and undoubtedly the 2010 hurler of the year was missed — but Tipperary were still sticking with their opponents.
That said, they played right into the hands of Kilkenny by joining them in an aerial slug-out that was anything but complementary to their strengths of pace and quick passing stickwork.
At the end, there was more of an air of resignation among Tipperary supporters than anger. Kilkenny had bested them once more and the players embraced as if they had battled one final time. For some on both sides, it might just be the end. For a rivalry that bordered on the vitriolic at times and yet enthralled us, it would be wholly fitting were it to finish on such a conciliatory note.
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