Saturday 23 September 2017

Kilkenny turn ugly side of game into a thing of beauty

Triumph built on hooks, blocks and tackles as Kilkenny refuse to 'play game on Tipp's terms'

Kilkenny and Tipperary players battle for possession during the All-Ireland hurling final replay at Croke Park. Photo: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Kilkenny and Tipperary players battle for possession during the All-Ireland hurling final replay at Croke Park. Photo: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The sequence of play that encapsulated this replay, the passage that shouted loudest of all, came just over 49 minutes in after Tipperary had closed a three-point gap to just the minimum.

Points from Noel McGrath and Seamie Callanan (free) had steadied an edgy Tipperary who had conceded the first five points of the half.

Then they launched another attack, with Patrick 'Bonner' Maher dropping his shoulder in trademark fashion and launching himself headlong into a forest of black and amber shirts. Momentum was at stake.

Jackie Tyrrell repelled him first and the ball spilled loose for McGrath to sweep back to Callanan. Callanan pulled the trigger but there was Tyrrell again blocking the shot. It came to McGrath, who lined up a shot, but he too watched a ball in flight hacked down, this time by Conor Fogarty. John O'Dwyer was next up but, as he sought to lift, Fogarty applied more pressure to dislodge before Tyrrell gathered and cleared his lines to an enormous roar.

Within seconds John Power had swept over his first All-Ireland final point at the other end and a two-point lead was restored.

Wall

At that moment it might well have felt like 10 to Tipperary. What, they might have asked themselves, was it going to take to break this Kilkenny wall down?

To their credit, Tipperary manfully stayed in a game they had no business having a foothold in at all. The character Eamon O'Shea has promised us all year they had allowed them to survive.

But survive is all they did. In the rarefied atmosphere of Kilkenny at their ferocious best like this, Brian Cody sees a different kind of beauty.

His team had leaked 29 scores the last day, the exploitation of space by Tipperary exposing defenders to one-on-one situations that gave the ball striker all the advantage.

"The last day we played the game on Tipperary's terms, this time we changed it around," reflected Kilkenny's bustling midfielder Michael Fennelly.

The opening exchanges had given Tipp a snapshot into what kind of evening it was going to be, an O'Dwyer shot blocked down by Tyrrell, Paul Murphy scrambling to smother Lar Corbett's effort from the rebound. All within the first minute.

O'Dwyer and Corbett had been two of Tipp's most destructive attackers in the drawn game but very early on they were decoding a different message from Kilkenny. The terms of engagement had changed.

In a game like this Cody sees real hurling beauty and in that respect it will sit high, perhaps highest of all, when the audit of his spectacular time in charge is complete.

Hooks, blocks, tackles - the technical craft associated with such skills that don't always jump off the page like a shoot-out might - delight him.

Kilkenny's block count alone was in double-figures, the hooking of Tipp players even more commonplace.

Each one of the Cats players was comfortable in the trenches. TJ Reid has been their stand-out forward over the summer but on Saturday he didn't score from play. Yet it was Reid who put the pressure on Padraic Maher to concede the sideline that led to Richie Power's game-breaking goal on 59 minutes when Tipp had closed to a point again.

It's that communal act of rolling up their sleeves that sets this and previous Kilkenny teams apart.

But in the art of defence it is JJ Delaney who is indisputably the Picasso of his age. His moment of defiance against Callanan in the 18th minute will, in time, become the signature of this final.

Callanan had powered on to an O'Dwyer lay-off and looked to have shown the chasing Delaney a clean pair of heels. But as Tipp's 'go to' man all summer drew back his hurl, Delaney nicked in to thwart him with almost mathematical precision under such pressure. It was quite a moment.

Delaney conceded he was caught in that moment but instinct had taken over.

"I knew I wasn't going to catch him for pace anyway, I wasn't going to run back past him," he reflected.

"So I kept him at a hurley's length because I knew he had to throw it up and hit it, it was just being in the right place at the right time.

"The hooking and blocking going on all over the field, from the likes of Michael Fennelly and Conor Fogarty, that was big in terms of momentum for us. We had to get in their faces as much as we could."

Cody railed against the notion afterwards that Delaney's legs don't carry him as fast as they once did.

"As we are so often told, our defenders are very, very slow and for JJ Delaney, who can't run, to get back and hook a player who, in your (media) opinion is a speed merchant. . . but we work a lot on speed to keep the lads quick.

"You would want to know what you are writing about when you are writing those things. You would want to realise that it doesn't work like that," he cautioned.

For Cody and his management this was resounding success for their ability to read a situation and get it right. Their match-ups with Tipperary's attackers were perfectly tailored and with the diligent Fogarty and Fennelly supplementing, the defensive screen was suffocating.

What is it about them, Fennelly was asked, that allows Cody to propagate his team with players like Murphy, Cillian Buckley, Colin Fennelly and Fogarty and still keep winning titles?

"Culture, atmosphere, environment," he reflected. "Brian is probably the man there who has created it over 15 to 16 years. Lads that come in know there are rules there that are not spoken of.

"Competition is massive, you can't take it handy in training because there will be someone down on top of you. It's good competition and that's why I think we win so much. In other counties you might not have that high standard of 30 players shooting for a position."

One of those 30 is Kieran Joyce, who had been on the margins since the drawn Galway game in June. Three months on his patience was rewarded with a nod about a week ago that he was in and that 'Bonner' Maher was his likely opponent.

His selection wasn't met with broad approval in Kilkenny during the week but his lack of competitive action in opposition to Tipperary's heartbeat didn't register.

The hothouse nature of the Kilkenny training ground, that Fennelly ventilated, has been enshrined by the capacity of Joyce to sit out three games in three months and still be primed perfectly for the pitch of this game.

And so, after a season of new horizons in 2013, a sense of old order has been restored to hurling and the wheel hasn't been re-invented after all. For the rest it's a sobering reality.

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