At half-time in this All-Ireland SHC semi-final in Croke Park yesterday everything seemed set up for Tipperary.
In a torrid opening quarter they had gone toe-to-toe with Kilkenny and survived, the teams tied at 0-5 apiece by the 14th minute.
Then, despite being dominated by Brian Cody’s chargers for much of the remainder of the half they had somehow managed to head for the dressing-room with a one-point ahead, 1-10 to 1-9, having outscored their Leinster neighbours 1-3 to nil in the final five minutes.
The interval would give Declan Ryan and his selectors a chance to a) get their tactics right and b) correct the man-to-man mismatches they had got so wrong in the first half. What happened? Tipperary’s best ball-winner, Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher, whose second-best asset is his ability to run straight at a defence and draw the cover, was still stuck inside on the edge of the square; a defence that had shown signs of vulnerability in the opening half was still intact; and Lar Corbett — where was the former Hurler of the Year?
Why, he wasn’t even on the field and didn’t emerge from the tunnel until after Henry Shefflin had already opened the scoring for Kilkenny, tying up the game. And when Lar finally did emerge, what did he find? Waiting for him only yards onto the field, just as had been the case for the start of the second half of last year’s All-Ireland final was Jackie Tyrrell. And just as for that game Lar spent almost every second of every minute of the afternoon trying to escape Jackie’s suffocating grip.
Thrice he half-succeeded; shook the ball loose from Kilkenny keeper David Herity’s grip for Tipperary’s goal; set up Pa Bourke for a goal half-chance and did likewise with a lovely backhand-pass to John O’Neill who shot into the side-netting.
Overall, however, Tyrell comfortably won that individual battle, as did every other Kilkenny player on the field bar Colin Fennelly on Padraic Maher, the one man who stood strong for Tipperary on the battlefield.
And war this was, war masquerading as a sport. Within ten seconds of the throw-in Kilkenny signalled their intent with a fine Aidan Fogarty point (played wing-forward, gave a man-of-the-match performance); within those same ten seconds a mass brawl broke out at the other end of the field. Referee Cathal McAllister adopted a sensible approach, had a few quick words with all involved but issued no cards, and the war-game recommenced.
The hitting was hard with neither side taking a backward step. Centre-back Conor O’Mahony landed a mighty point for Tipp, as did Noel McGrath while Pa Bourke was faultless from placed balls (four 65s pointed in a game — a record at this level?) Replying for Kilkenny, midfielders Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice, Henry Shefflin, TJ Reid, Richie Power and Colin Fennelly, leaving it 0-9 to 0-7 on 25 minutes.
Kilkenny though were already looking the better side and three times Tipperary keeper Brendan Cummins was called on to clear his lines under serious pressure, once denying Colin Fennelly with a brave body-block. In the 27th minute, however, even Cummins could no nothing about TJ Reid’s rocket. Reid produced a very passable Henry Shefflin impression in ghosting from right corner to left, to take the scoring pass from the great Henry, who had burst through the middle.
A body-blow for Tipp but they responded in magnificent fashion with Corbett using his searing pace to get in on top of goalkeeper Herity and had strength in his the hit to jar the ball loose, Pa Bourke capitalising to hit into an empty net. Now with the momentum, Tipp rattled off three points to take that undeserved interval lead.
What a second half by Kilkenny, however. Points from Henry (2), Richie Power (2), Fogarty (1), against one each from Bourke and John O’Brien (a minute’s silence observed to honour John’s brother Thomas, who passed away last week. A generous ovation also for John when replaced in the 63rd minute) giving them a 1-14 to 1-12 lead by the 44th minute.
Boy, what a transformation from there to the end; what had been a war became a romp. It started with a super Aidan Fogarty individual goal (45th minute), continued with a typical Eoin Larkin go-for-the-jugular goal when he rounded Paul Curran (52nd minute) before the coup-de-grace was applied by Reid (with Larkin supplying the ammunition in the 58th minute).
And what had been a narrow two-point lead and a game still very much in the balance was now a 13-point chasm (4-17 to 1-13). War over.
As Brendan Cummins said last week — in beating Kilkenny in the Leinster final, Galway had ‘created an even bigger monster’? Now Galway get to face their own creation.
Another game, or another war — what think you?
Scorers for Kilkenny: H Shefflin 0-11 (9f, 1 65); TJ Reid 2-2; A Fogarty 1-3; E Larkin 1-0; R Power 0-3 (1f, 1 65); B Hogan, M Fennelly, M Rice, C Fennelly, C Buckley, 0-1 each.
Scorer for Tipperary: P Bourke 1-8 (4f, 4 65s); N McGrath 0-2; J O’Neill 0-2; C O’Mahony, S McGrath, J O’Brien, 0-1 each.
Subs for Kilkenny: C Buckley (Rice inj. 18); R Doyle (Murphy 64); N Hickey (Joyce 64); M Ruth (C Fennelly 64); C Fogarty (A Fogarty 67).
Subs for Tipperary: S Bourke (O’Meara 46); P Stapleton (T Stapleton 47); D Maher (Curran 60); J O’Neill (O’Brien 63); J Woodlock (B Maher 66).
Referee: C McAllister (Cork).
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