Regime change? Tipperary’s emphatic victory over Kilkenny in yesterday’s All-Ireland senior hurling final certainly felt like an administration of long-standing yielding to new rulers.
This was partly due to the transfer of power, which was too abrupt to be strictly democratic. Nine points was the final margin, and Tipp left a couple of goals and a dozen wides after them also: only for the Cats’ innate obduracy, it might have been an obliteration.
The auguries were good for Kilkenny. On Saturday evening Squeeze packed Vicar Street in Dublin: Squeeze, whose Cool For Cats has been recycled by a thousand headline writers in the years of Kilkenny’s pomp. As Sunday afternoon unfolded those same headline writers were reaching for Up The Junction: there was no disguising Tipperary’s supremacy.
The blue-and-gold masses were waiting for this result since 2010, when Tipperary’s senior and U21 double looked a fair omen for the future. Kilkenny retaliated with extreme prejudice, of course, in the intervening years, and in the run-up to yesterday’s final, Tipperary players acknowledged the hard fact. The Cats had had the upper hand.
The engine of that primacy was also acknowledged: it was based on appetite and intensity, and given the guarantee of same from Kilkenny, the general feeling was that if Tipperary could match the relentless appetite for work of their opponents they might have the raw talent to thrive.
So it proved: three times in the first half Tipperary’s work rate up front turned the ball over, and on each occasion Tipp got a point. In the second half Noel McGrath stepped in to intercept a Kilkenny handpass, released to his brother John almost before the retina had registered the thievery, and Tipp had a second goal.
Kilkenny responded then with a fine goal first-timed to the net by Richie Hogan, but the tide was blue and gold at that stage, and Cats boss Brian Cody was the Canute of Jones’s Road.
“There was nothing in it at half-time, essentially,” said Cody afterwards. “The first half was to-ing and fro-ing a bit, there was two points in it at half-time. We got a good start to the second half, we got a goal.
“We didn’t drive it on after that. They got a goal and they did drive it on. They were very, very good, and that’s the way it went.
“Six points in it with what, ten minutes to go, and a goal, possibly — you get a goal and there’s nothing in it.
“You have to fight it out to the bitter end. We tried to keep going, to keep doing that, and they did fight it out to the bitter end.
“But we weren’t narrowing the gap enough, and as the minutes wore on it was becoming more and more difficult for us to pull it back.”
The Kilkenny man’s summary was precise. A tight first half gave way to a blossoming second period, and Kilkenny were the side that benefited early.
Both Colin Fennelly and Eoin Larkin went looking for early second-half goals, and eventually Walter Walsh, Liam Blanchfield and Kevin Kelly conjured it up, Kelly single-handedly preserving one of the eternal verities of the game: a corner-forward stays in the corner.
Worryingly for Tipperary, there was another unmarked Kilkenny man next to him to finish the chance, but a looser game would eventually suit the Munster champions: within minutes Tipp had cancelled out the two-point lead that gave their opponents, and then hit a goal of their own.
Referee Brian Gavin gave a good advantage to Cathal Barrett, who found John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer with a fine cross field ball: O’Dwyer cut in and finished well, low in the corner, and made a nonsense of geometry to carve out another goal chance a minute later, though Eoin Murphy saved smartly.
Seamus Callanan and John McGrath started to torture Kilkenny from play, and Padraic Maher intervened with a classical fetch-and-point reeled over from underneath the Cusack.
When Noel McGrath set up that goal for his brother a hammering looked on the cards. That put nine between them, and despite Hogan’s retort and some spirited assaults by the stripey men, it was the same margin at the end.
Tipperary boss Michael Ryan felt his side’s consistency over the 70 minutes was crucial: “I’ll have to review it, to see the detail, but in that second half it felt . . . we were never out of it, I thought they got an outstanding second goal, but I never felt we were out of it for any length of time, that we kept the scoreboard moving quite regularly.
“When we got our noses in front we felt we had that bit of daylight for a cushion.
“I’m not aware of the second half stats but it felt as though we tipped the scales in that direction in the second half. It felt to me like a phenomenal second half, that the intensity was really good, that it was end to end — but that our guys showed great composure, great skill and great focus throughout it all.”
Revel once said there are no genres, only talents. On yesterday’s evidence it might be sharper to say there are no talents, only effort, and Tipperary were able to match Kilkenny for endeavour.
Regrets for Kilkenny? Afterwards Brian Cody batted away suggestions his side needed Michael Fennelly, injured in the semi-final replay, but before the game, the contrast was obvious: Seamus Callanan defying late rumours of a hand injury with his metronomically struck practice frees, while in the black and amber corner Fennelly was on crutches watching his colleagues warm up.
Would have Fennelly have made a difference? Undoubtedly. Would Tipperary have still won? Probably.
Kilkenny adherents before the game had pointed to their ability to find a way to get over the line, but this was one September Sunday when Cody didn’t have gold on his subs’ bench.
He extolled the strength of the panel before the game and afterwards, but it was past 60 minutes yesterday before he made a change. At the end the starting Tipp full-forward line had gorged themselves on 2-21: by contrast, the Cat’s full-forward line had 1-2 against their names by the 73rd and final minute.
For Tipperary the future looks bright. They had five players in their starting line-up who were playing in their first All-Ireland final, while the core of players from 2010 is not yet 30. In addition, they picked up the All-Ireland minor title in yesterday’s curtain-raiser.
Michael Ryan of all people won’t need reminding that the future looked as bright in 2010 but didn’t shine as expected. He won’t need reminding what yesterday’s result will mean to others, either.
“This is a fantastic day for Tipperary hurling and I think we might have awoken other giants here that had been sleeping a little bit.
“I think every other county is going to take huge encouragement from what we achieved this year.
“Every single one of us hurling counties were chasing Kilkenny, those are the facts.
“I think we are after sending home a lot of teams that will set the 2017 championship alight.”
True enough. But 2016 belongs to Knocknagow.
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