LAST WEEK Muhammad Ali came to town.
This week we assigned his title to practitioners in another code.
Kilkenny reeled in their fourth consecutive All-Ireland senior hurling title yesterday in Croke Park, beating a youthful Tipperary side by five points, and ascended to a level all their own in the hurling pantheon. The first side to win four-in-a-row since Cork from 1941-44, the Cats have earned the title once held by the big Ennis man fighting out of Kentucky.
There have been outstanding teams for over a hundred years in hurling, but surely none that would beat this combination in a winner-take-all championship game. Four All-Irelands in a row is the bottom line, but delivering it has meant building an aura which demands an odd mix of adjectives. Steel and silk. Strength and subtlety.
For years teams have attacked Michael Kavanagh’s pace and Tommy Walsh’s height, or lack of same, only to be thrown back from the ramparts as they were yesterday. Tactical plans have come to nought against JJ Delaney’s defensive skills. Henry Shefflin got the game-breaking score yesterday. How often has that happened over the years?
Even the Cats manager, the usually unflappable Brian Cody, seemed conscious of the achievement at the final whistle.
“It’s great,” said Cody yesterday. “A lot of counties would give everything to win one. It’s a massive achievement. How difficult is it? It’s crazy, really, that these players have done that in this day and age. It’s just mad.”
There can be no more questions about this Kilkenny team’s status. Recent final-day annihilations may have clouded the judgement, but every time Kilkenny were asked a question by Tipperary yesterday, they produced an answer.
Tipp smelt second-half goals but PJ Ryan pushed those shots around the post; when the optimum time for goals of their own arrived, Kilkenny gulped back those chances like oysters with a splash of tabasco; and as a young Tipperary side bombarded their goal late on, the men in black and amber stood their ground – or rather, won possession and pirouetted to the wing, laying the sliotar off to the free man offering himself as an outlet.
The right thing, the right time. Simplicity itself.
Spare a thought this morning for the men from the Premier County. They couldn’t really argue with Benny Dunne’s 54th-minute sending-off, but there was a good deal of unhappiness with the penalty Kilkenny were awarded eight minutes later by referee Diarmuid Kirwan.
Kilkenny were trailing by two points when Richie Power bore down on goal through a thicket of blue and gold jerseys; he was clearly fouled, but the infringement seemed to occur outside the large parallelogram rather than within.
“It started outside the square and finished inside the square,” said Tipp manager Liam Sheedy afterwards. “There were a good few steps. Did anyone count the steps? These are the calls and the day you get the calls is probably the day you win the match.
“I’d be of the opinion that we were unlucky to get the penalty given against us.”
Sheedy had good grounds for that opinion, but Henry Shefflin was remorseless in execution. He drove a ferocious penalty in over the shoulder of Brendan Cummins, and it was a score that carried more weight than three points: it set all of Kilkenny free at last.
A minute later Eoin Larkin drove for goal before finding substitute Martin Comerford with a neat pass: two goals in two minutes. Tipp left gasping.
Their DNA wouldn’t comprehend meek capitulation, and they fought to the end, but the game had shifted beyond them, into the zone of the historical. Liam Sheedy paid tribute to his men – and to the winners.
“I’m proud, the lads gave it everything,” said Sheedy. “But I take my hat off to Kilkenny. It’s hard to make history and those guys have done it today ... we were beaten by five points today. It (the penalty) was a big call, but Kilkenny were finishing really strongly, and the second goal was the one that hurt.”
The general consensus that Tipperary will be back in the future will hardly comfort Sheedy and his men. There’s no time like the present, and with nine minutes to go Noel McGrath drove them into a two-point lead, despite having only 14 men. It was there for them: if either of the two second-half goal chances that fell to Seamus Callanan and Eoin Kelly had been converted, they could have gone on and won it.
The fact that they weren’t scored is tribute to Kilkenny ‘keeper PJ Ryan.
For years we have had to take the shot-stopping ability of various black-and-amber goalies on trust, because first-hand examples of the skill have been as plentiful as chastened bankers. Yesterday as Kelly wound up, a few of us muttered a quick prayer for Ryan’s personal safety, but the goalkeeper held his head: the Tipp man slipped as he shot and the ‘keeper adjusted his footing to get down and push the shot around the post.
The save from Callanan was a magnificent effort that stunned the crowd into silence. But then again, Ryan wasn’t lacking in motivation.
“Being up on the border, in Johnstown, it’s something you dream about all your life,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking that this morning coming up, ‘that this is the stuff dreams are made of’ – just to win the match the way we did.
“Lads were saying we didn’t win a hard All-Ireland, and to win it the way we did – it was special, really.”
Special, PJ? You can’t do better than that? Then maybe we weren’t quite right in saying no questions remain.
What odds five-in-a-row?
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