Tipperary 2-17 Kilkenny 3-14: An epic draw which few would dispute that Kilkenny, based on their billing coming into the game, won, even if the result was a just end to a scintillating contest.
Eight points down after 22 minutes, Kilkenny put themselves into the lead for the first time in the 66th minute through the inspirational Cillian Buckley only for Tipperary sub Steven O’Brien to fire over the equaliser.
Tipperary were wayward with several point attempts in the dying minutes and Eoin Murphy had saved well from John McGrath, while Seamus Callanan put Murphy’s parry wide prior to Buckley’s point.
Still, Kilkenny were more than good for their point. “I learned that what I always feel we’re capable of they’re still capable of,” enthused Brian Cody afterwards, though he was conscious not to over-egg it when both teams took something away from Thurles.
“I think they showed the spirit tonight that we always need to show. I would imagine several questions were being asked of the players.
“Tonight was just one game. Just because the response is good tonight, the thing is only starting. It’s only March, but I think it was still an important challenge we faced tonight and we faced it well.”
The roles have been reversed: Tipperary may now be the aggressors, but Kilkenny aren’t stepping back. In losing to Waterford and Clare, there had been reason to believe the Cats had been muscled out of it, but three times in the first half in Semple Stadium, Tipperary perfectly sized up their players for monster hits and three times they bounced back up. The biggest of them came in the 28th minute, when Pádraic Maher, similar to how he trained his crosshairs on Joe Canning last August, teed up Buckley for a shoulder, but the Dicksboro man recovered quickly. Walter Walsh took a rasp of one too near the end of the half, but had the resilience to compose himself and take his point.
Buckley was a colossal figure for Kilkenny on an evening where they quietened much of the disquiet about their group. Pushing Buckley to midfield, thereby breaking up another component of his half-back line, having moved Pádraig Walsh to full-back, might have been seen as a risk on Cody’s part, but Buckley put out fires in one half of the field and set them in the other.
Cody has never been one to indulge a player after a strong display, but he seemed to be making an exception for Buckley: “He was very, very good. There’s no doubt about that. He worked up and down the field all night. He got onto ball, he won ball, he scored. He just did great work. He has that ability. Cillian’s a terrific athlete as well, so he took on great responsibility.”
Tipperary led 2-11 to 2-7 at the break, having had goals by John McGrath in the third minute and Niall O’Meara in the 22nd followed by strikes at the other end by Reid, including the first of two penalties on the half hour mark after Michael Cahill had infringed on Alan Murphy.
Richie Hogan was a different player in the second half, posting four points, as Kilkenny kept in touch before they equalised in the 56th minute, Reid’s penalty goal punishing Pádraic Maher’s clumsy foul on Liam Blanchfield.
Amid the intensity, there was a passage of play that had everyone gasping for air by the time James Owens called for a Tipperary free. His full-time whistle had just the same effect on the privileged 14,763 crowd.
Michael Ryan was braced for what Kilkenny brought to Semple Stadium even if others weren’t. “I think ye [media] boys will be in business for years. It just gives and gives. Ye might write it, but ye didn’t believe it; those guys are not written off or anything like it. They’ve been at this point over the last 15 years on how many occasions? It takes a really good team to come out there, two really good teams, to serve up that game. We were well away there in the first half, but in typical Kilkenny style, they came roaring back into the game. They’re just a quality side, we know that, there’s no secret about that.”
If Ryan was disappointed not to land another psychological blow against Kilkenny, he was doing a good job of hiding it. He gave a wry smile when asked if the draw might have been a reality check kind of blessing for Tipperary, given Henry Shefflin last week compared their depth of talent to the Dublin footballers.
“The facts of the matter are that we are not miles ahead of the rest. Who doubted that Kilkenny were going to come here and play a top-class game and almost go home with the spoils? We have seen them do it time and time again. It doesn’t bother us one way or another. There are all sorts of comparisons being made, but in the top tier of hurling, four or five teams are contesting and well capable of taking points off each other in this league or knocking each other out of the championship.”
Ryan hopes to have last year’s All-Ireland winning captain Brendan Maher back in the coming two or three weeks after he suffered a grade one acromioclavicular (AC) joint separation. Donagh Maher followed concussion protocols following the Clare game and should be fit to face Cork. Cathal Barrett is close to making a return to action, following his ankle operation before Christmas.
“Cathal is making great progress, champing at the bit. He’ll be hard to hold. So, I’d say the next two to three weeks we should see Cathal back on the pitch.”
One of only five of Tipperary’s starting All-Ireland winning team not to begin Saturday’s game, All-Star Barrett is sure to ratchet up competition for places. If they are to keep their noses ahead of the neighbours then it’s from within that Tipp must warrant that sense of superiority. Another duel with Kilkenny before spring’s end can’t be dismissed, nor should it be missed.
Scorers for Tipperary:
S. Callanan (0-6, 3 frees, 1 65); J. McGrath (1-2); N. O’Meara (1-1); D. McCormack, S. Curran (0-2 each); P. Maher, N. McGrath, J. O’Dwyer, S. O’Brien (0-1 each).
Scorers for Kilkenny:
T.J. Reid (3-5, 2-0 pens, 0-4 frees); R. Hogan (0-4); C. Buckley (0-3); W. Walsh (0-2).
D. Mooney; J. O’Keeffe, J. Barry, M. Cahill; T. Hamill, R. Maher, P. Maher; S. Curran, M. Breen; D. McCormack, N. O’Meara, N. McGrath; J. O’Dwyer, S. Callanan, J. McGrath.
Subs for Tipperary:
K. Bergin for M. Breen (35+1); J. Forde for D. McCormack (55); S. Kennedy for M. Cahill (58); S. O’Brien for N. O’Meara (68).
E. Murphy; P. Murphy, P. Walsh, C. O’Shea; C. Fogarty, S. Prendergast, J. Cleere; P. Deegan, C. Buckley; C. Fennelly, R. Hogan, T.J. Reid; A. Murphy, W. Walsh, L. Blanchfield.
Sub for Kilkenny:
J. Maher for A. Murphy (40).
J. Owens (Wexford).
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