In the lull after the minor match last Sunday a few of us collided over the teacups in the press room and agreed in passing that, logically, this simply had to be Tipperary’s day.
Michael Fennelly out, leaving the holders’ porch devoid of oversized canines. Eoin Larkin aged 32. Two members of the full-forward line making their first championship start. A centre-back dropped for the replay with Waterford and now recalled in extremis. And their opponents a young and progressive team whose form line, if not bulletproof, had no gaping holes.
There’s nothing to beat a young and progressive team. Particularly not treble-chasing champions, as was the case for Cork in 2004 and Kilkenny two years later, and even less so drive-for-fiveing champions: see Tipperary themselves in 2010. Every decade witnesses a couple of progressive young teams lift the MacCarthy Cup, a la Offaly 1994 and Clare 2013. Wexford in 1996 were, uniquely, a progressive old team.
So Tipperary won and they were entitled to win. The manner in which they won, well, that was a whole other story.
Back in 2008, Kilkenny hit 3-30 against Waterford. The assumption, if anyone stopped and bothered to make an assumption, was that this record All-Ireland final tally would last forever and a day. Tipperary came within two scores of it, and this after eight wides and a mishit free in the first half – Kilkenny in 2008 hit two first-half wides – followed by Eoin Murphy’s gaiscí in the second period. Had Tipp won by 15 points it wouldn’t have been a miscarriage of justice.
What would your reaction have been had someone said that to you on Sunday morning?
In winning in 2010 Tipperary beat Kilkenny by eight points and on the run of the game were a little flattered to do so: 21 scores versus 19 scores. In winning in 2016 they beat them not only by nine points but also by nine scores. Total, inarguable dominance, on the field and on the scoreboard.
After all the near-misses a narrow victory, ground out in the last few minutes, would have sufficed for Tipp folk. It would have more than sufficed. Never mind the margin, feel the relief and redemption. Instead they got transcendence in the form of one of the sport’s all-time great September performances, authored by Michael Ryan, who wrote the opening chapter as far back as last autumn when reshaping his panel.
Tipp would be all hip and whip under Ryan, a team moulded in the unflinching spirit of their manager? They were that but they were so much more besides. To Ryan’s clarity of thought – he knew his best team from the start of the championship, possibly even from midway through the league, and he stuck with it - was added a coaching model of the highest order. He waited for the people, particularly Conor Stakelum, he wanted on the ticket. The wait was worthwhile.
Bare figures do not illustrate the new champions’ progress. Tipperary’s statistics didn’t evolve over the course of the summer because the wet conditions against Cork, Limerick and Waterford skewed them. The top of the ground was always going to suit them, however, and last Sunday their aggregates for tackles made and shots at goal were off the scale.
Yet Ryan and Fanning could only lead the horse to water. What helped make the difference in Semple Stadium and the Gaelic Grounds and Croke Park was that, away from Dr Morris Park, various pennies of various shapes and sizes dropped simultaneously for various reasons. The starlets of 2010 became men. Intimations of their own mortality as intercounty hurlers? Very possibly.
Brendan Maher, long the leader of the generation, has never looked as happy as he did this year, his return to his best position marking the foundation stone of his peace of mind. Pádraic Maher was physically and mentally improved, this new stability engendered by his enrolment in the gardaí and evident in the control with which he went about his business. While he burned to atone for his sloppiness against Waterford and Galway last year he didn’t make the mistake of trying too hard. That asinine pull on TJ Reid at Nowlan Park during the league seems a world away now.
Noel McGrath’s life-changing experience gave him an understandable new perspective on the world and yielded a sense of focused enjoyment that banished the pressure: smell the roses and all of that. Seamus Callanan, meanwhile, realised he couldn’t do it all by himself and his encouragement to the newer players was notable and noted.
Then there was Patrick Maher. Under a different successor to Eamon O’Shea it could easily have been the end of the road for Maher. He wasn’t going to be upskilled or learn new tricks. He wasn’t going to wake up one morning as Nicky English rather than Donie O’Connell. But Ryan found a wingman for him in Dan McCormack and now the Tipperary half-forward line were ploughing a double furrow. Although All Stars aren’t awarded on the basis of job sharing, if Maher receives a statuette in November he might consider giving McCormack a loan of it for the occasional weekend .
One small point should be made in defence of the above quintet, all of whom would surely have been on borrowed time in the event of yet another defeat by Kilkenny. They had initially flamed brightly, then flamed out, where they did, and where they did is not easily forgiving territory.
There is nowhere harder to be a successful young hurler than in Tipperary, where the natives are either building castles in the air out of their latest starlets or digging shallow graves for them.
The boys of 2010 became men on Sunday. For the moment the future can wait. But this time around they’re better equipped to embark on the journey. And this time around, they have John McGrath.
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