Monday 21 August 2017

Vincent Hogan: An age-old tale of the hunter and the hunted

Kilkenny's Michael Rice celebrates victory. Photo: Sportsfile
Kilkenny's Michael Rice celebrates victory. Photo: Sportsfile

There is no science in hurt, no arithmetic in dander and, sometimes, no great military tactic in the overthrow of kings. What Kilkenny did yesterday was as plain as inviting someone outside to defend the family honour. They came to Croke Park primed for war. Sure, they flooded their defensive channels and, unlike last year, told their men not to countenance leaving a sentry post vacant.

But in an age of innovation, this was Old Testament hurling.

The team that wins the battle is rarely undone by strategy. So ignore the stats men flapping about with an eternity of graphs and tables today. By my reckoning, Kilkenny won just five of their own puck-outs cleanly in the entire game. Maybe all you really need to know is that they won the final two.

That's what champions do. As Tipp flailed desperately, their last two scores were followed, quick as drumbeats, by Kilkenny points direct

from David Herity's restarts. Even in an area of meltdown, the warrior finds a way.

And that will, forever more, be the signature on Brian Cody's story. This was the eighth time he found himself with that beaming, burst-capillary smile, waving away the compliments of a winning captain from the steps of the Hogan Stand. He has been 13 years tuning Kilkenny for summer and, yet, never did they look more obstinate than they did yesterday.

So they went man-to-man with Tipp's fliers, Jackie Tyrrell on Lar Corbett, Noel Hickey on Eoin Kelly, Tommy Walsh on the bullocking Patrick 'Bonner' Maher. There was no sweeper deployed, no conspicuous 'robbing Peter to pay Paul' deference to an attack that had stockpiled scores so effortlessly in Munster.

This was a simple investment of trust. Kilkenny believed they had the better men. And, on the day, they had.

All the worrying murmurs that, maybe in hindsight, Dublin decanted from Tipp's forward line now came bellowing out as fact. The champions were wiped out in the air. The trick of one forward vacating space for another to arrive in was rendered obsolete by Kilkenny's refusal to follow the hare. Cody's boys just held their positions and hurled.

The gospel of their past.

For Kilkenny, the compression of space referenced every tenet of battle. This they achieved, not so much with the alignment of bodies as with the heat of collective aggression. Maybe half of the day's puck-outs went to ground and a ball going to ground was all but a gun in a Kilkenny hand. They devoured everything at the breaks, the early rain all but anointing Tipperary.

Croke Park was under a grey eiderdown by 2.45, the lights on, the low seats full of oilskins.

And Kilkenny, being opportunist types, seemed to plunge straight for the jugular. With less than a minute on the clock, Henry Shefflin dipped a shoulder to gun past rookie wing-back John O'Keeffe. It took Shane McGrath's assistance to contain him but, instantly, Colin Fennelly was fouled and Henry nailed the free.

Seconds later, Eoin Larkin exploded towards the Canal End goal only for Michael Cahill to thieve brilliantly. A pattern was emerging. Kilkenny were pressing Tipp into little eruptions of panic.

O'Keeffe needlessly batted a ball he might have caught, allowing Richie Hogan to score. Then Paul Curran rescued a ball off the whitewash of the goal-line after Hogan's delivery broke behind Brendan Cummins. Soon after, Richie Power scored after McGrath ran into heavy traffic, then Cahill and Conor O'Mahony were both blocked down in quick succession as a prelude to Walsh setting up Henry for a score.

Fifteen minutes in, Kilkenny were five clear. Psychologically, maybe double that.

Tipp were suffering meltdown in the forwards, ball after ball trampolining back out as if the wretched screen, penning people into Hill 16, had been secretly relocated 40 yards south. And yet, just as Tipp began to find a foothold, Walsh inadvertently called a halt. He might have trouble explaining how, from a lawless ruck, his hurley caught Brian Gavin on the bridge of the nose. Yet, the incident led to a five-minute stoppage that suited only Kilkenny. At the first hint of Tipp momentum, the referee found himself practically needing a new face.

Yet, two incidents maybe caught the half in microcosm.

On 29 minutes, John O'Brien rose to claim a mighty catch from O'Mahony's long free only to turn and find the Hill goal a swarming beehive. Then the starved Corbett materialised at the mouth of the Hogan Stand tunnel, palpably desperate for space. Lar swung, Colin Fennelly blocked him down with his head. The medics went looking for a fresh needle.

In between, of course, Henry had engineered a beautiful goal, jabbing a short line 'cut' to Larkin, taking the return and flicking inside to Richie Hogan whose sublime pop pass to the human freight train that is Michael Fennelly smashed Tipp's defence to kindling. As the sun came out, the miracle was that Tipp still had some breath in their lungs.

Declan Ryan shuffled his deck at half-time, but an extraordinary 40th-minute Shefflin score spoke of the difference between the hunters and the hunted. Gavin tossed a hop-ball between the King and Benny Dunne and, well, Henry didn't even bother with a swing. He just leaned in on Benny like a father scolding a lippy child, flicked the sliotar to his bidding and launched a museum-piece point.

Not a bad way for a man to announce his arrival at the shoulder of Ring and Doyle.

Twice Henry would berate the beleaguered ref for not playing advantage, such was Kilkenny's hunger to keep the tempo high.

Old legs were leaving smoke trails in the grass. And those legs decanted, perhaps, the goal of the summer. Colin Fennelly's handpass put Eddie Brennan clear in a gaping midfield prairie and, rather than stop for an inhaler, directions or even a walking aid, old, forgotten Eddie took off as if he'd seen snakes at his feet. His run only ended when Tipp awoke to the sirens and came flapping like hens from a burning shed.

Cue Eddie's offload to Richie Hogan and the younger man didn't even deign to touch the sliotar with his hand, nailing a perfect, high finish beyond Brendan Cummins. Kilkenny up by eight.


And maybe for the only time all day, a little conceit got the better of their rage. On 55 minutes, Michael Fennelly out-muscled Benny to a Cummins delivery and, closing in on the Hill end goal, he seemed to decide it was high time for sequins and tassles. He blazed for goal, Cummins saved. Cody's hands went to his head.

Seconds later, Corbett's offload put Pa Bourke in for a Tipp goal and you sensed, if Fennelly came to the Hogan Stand sideline, he might sensibly do it in camouflage fatigues. Steam came off his manager like smoke from a refinery.

Then Tipp did the strangest thing. Four times in quick succession, O'Brien made epic fetches and, if a great deal didn't accrue from the possession, at least he was now offering 'Bonner' Maher a second pair of hands to do the dirty digging. Then just moments after he'd been fouled by Larkin for a 64th-minute Kelly free, Declan Ryan replaced him. Inexplicable.

Tipp were desperate now and the obligation to chase a goal drew them into irrational bursts towards the heaviest of traffic. Benny was smothered up like a wren targeted by magpies and then, after the sight of Henry misplacing a pass drew audible gasps, 'Bonner' Maher was pulled to the ground by men long since parted from all scruple.

Kelly scored the free, but Richie Power rose to Herity's puck-out for a clean catch and offloaded to TJ Reid to give Kilkenny back the cushion of four. On 71 minutes, Gearoid Ryan drew it back to a goal only for Larkin to take Herity's next missile and sign the decisive warranty.

It was over.

Cody thrust his hands towards the heavens and murmured something private, then swung down the line towards his bench with that goofy, cartoon-like stride. This was his moment. The team given up in May as a busted old nag, destined for the glue factory, was back splashing the world with bows and curtsies.

It took him time but, eventually, he located Shefflin. The two fell into a deep embrace, a thousand secrets rolling off them. Neither looked close to tiredness.

Irish Independent

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