Yes it was only the league, but there were so many subplots to this game yesterday in Semple Stadium.
A couple of weeks ago, it was to have been the glamour NHL opener, under lights in Thurles, but twice it had been postponed due to bad weather. In the meantime, however, Tipperary lost heavily to Dublin, meaning that this game took on a new significance for the hosts.
Where before it was going to be a novelty, a Saturday evening floodlit repeat of the cracking 2009 league and All-Ireland finals, now it became an early opportunity for Kilkenny to do what this team has done so many times over the last few all-conquering years to so many other teams in the league, and lay down yet another marker.
Kilkenny themselves were weakened by the absence of over half a dozen starters from last September, but all the better for that – beat Tipp now, a full-strength but wounded Tipp, in their own house, and the cute Cats wouldn’t just be vastly reducing the league play-off chances of their closest rivals, it could also have longer-term repercussions.
None of this was lost on the hurling public which explains why, even on a chilly March 7, there was a real championship feel to Thurles yesterday. Sun shining, clear skies, fast pitch, a loud and fully committed crowd of 20,254, the two top teams of 2009 faced off.
It wasn’t just the teams getting stuck into each other either. Liam Sheedy is always an animated figure during a game so it was no surprise to see the Tipp manager up and down the sideline yesterday urging on his charges, swapping banter with the officials. Brian Cody, however, usually maintains his reserve until the championship, and even then, only gets really involved in the bigger games. But yesterday he too was animated from early on, remonstrating with referee Barry Kelly from Westmeath, cajoling the men in stripes; then, near the end of the match with Tipperary just two points ahead, a shemozzle near the sideline involving several players developed into something more as Cody and Sheedy too became very much up close and personal. It was a confrontation that ended with the Tipp manager giving his opposite number a push to the chest. “When the match is close like that, it’s high tempo stuff,” said Sheedy.
“We’re managers – maybe they (the players) watch our body language, but for us, it’s Tipp and Kilkenny, the second round of the league. If we lost today it probably finished our involvement in the league. It was important to get the two points, get back on the road. In a lot of ways it was backs to the wall.”
For Cody, however, the sideline battle was a lot more than just a minor momentary confrontation – “It was a battle for anyone out there, it was a flat-out game and huge commitment from both teams.” Spot on, Brian. From the first minute it was obvious that this was a different Tipp team to that which suffered so badly in Parnell Park last week. Two early pointed frees from the on-song Eoin Kelly saw them into an early lead and from there to the break it was toe-to-toe, two heavyweights laying into each other. Six points apiece it was into injury-time, when Eoin Kelly landed the only real body-blow of the match, and a sucker punch it was. A pass from John O’Brien gave the Tipp captain possession just inside the 20m line, several defenders inside him, but a swivel, a thunderbolt shot, and Tipperary had a one-goal lead.
All through a hotly-contested second half, that goal stood between them, and it was still there at the death, when young Noel McGrath notched the insurance point. Defences dominated, true, both sextets doing well, Padraic Maher (Tipp) and Jackie Tyrell (Kilkenny) the main men on either side, but this was nevertheless a vastly entertaining contest for all that. Game of the league so far, without question, certainly one worth waiting for.
Scorers for Tipperary: E. Kelly 1-7 (0-6 frees); S. McGrath 0-2; L. Corbett 0-2; N. McGrath, J. O’Brien, J. Brennan, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Kilkenny: J. Tennyson 0-3; J. Mulhall 0-3; R. Hogan 0-3 (frees); E. Larkin, M. Rice, T. Walsh, J. Tyrell, 0-1 each.
Subs for Tipperary: H. Moloney (Dunne 43); J. Brennan (T. Stapleton 53); S. Callanan (O’Brien 59); P. Kelly (Webster 66).
Subs for Kilkenny: M. Grace (Rice inj. 46); P. Hogan (R. Hogan inj. 61).
Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath).