Sport Hurling

Saturday 24 June 2017

Anatomy of a final

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It had to happen this way. You don't pick up four-in-a-rows like fast food at a drive-thru window, so it was fitting that Kilkenny were pushed to the floor of their resolve to beat Tipperary in last year's final.

It would go down as a contest with their greatness stamped upon it like a copyright. They won just eight from 32 of their own puck-outs. They conceded more points than ever previously leaked under the management of Brian Cody. They were obliterated in the air and, for long spells, on the ground.

Yet, they compiled the third-highest winning tally in the history of 70-minute finals. In a contest of unrelenting ferocity, they spilled five wides all day.

Their hurling, then, was an essay in economy. The ultimate expression of cool heads in an overheating place.

0-10 mins

The exploratory process lasts two and a half minutes until Jackie Tyrrell's shoulder torpedoes into Seamus Callanan's chest. 'Welcome to Dodge,' it declares. An unsighted Diarmuid Kirwan waits patiently while Callanan is reassembled by the medics, then throws the ball in.

In the sixth minute, a cantering James Woodlock has his pockets picked by Tommy Walsh. Tommy's hurley looks high and Woodlock hits the deck, like someone caught by sniper fire. Kirwan waves 'play-on', the sliotar being couriered swiftly to the Canal End where Eoin Larkin spills it wide to a crescendo of boos.

There's a trickle of blood from the bridge of Woodlock's nose, but slow motion absolves Tommy. His theft is a miracle of hand-speed, not an act of piracy. And a rhythm is being established here, hardship given and taken by consenting adults.

The final is already fizzing in some independent state on the fringes of the rule book. Heaven help us, maybe it's the better for it too.

Early goals embalmed Kilkenny's opponents in the finals of '07 and '08 and they mine an opportunity just eight minutes in. Walsh's delivery floats in a deceptive arc over Tipp's half-backs and their rookie full-back, Padraic Maher, is suddenly caught with concrete in his shoes.

Henry Shefflin materialises goal-side of Maher and that's a bit like Warren Buffett descending on a bargain. Henry nudges the sliotar, then pulls and, again, the naked eye misreads things. Looks like Henry has scuffed it wide, but slo-mo identifies a wristy Brendan Cummins intervention.

Henry misses the '65'. Hundreds faint in the upper tiers.

Tipp are varying their puck-outs. A short one to Paddy Stapleton catches the Cats cold, but he proceeds to drive the ball down John Tennyson's throat. The segment closes with Eoin Kelly's two frees to Henry's one all we have to show for scores.

Nerves hiss like a neglected pot on the stove.

PUCK-OUT SUCCESS: Tipperary 2 of 4; Kilkenny 0 of 2.

PLAYER WITH MOST PLAYS: Tommy Walsh (5).

TIPPERARY 0-2; KILKENNY 0-1.

10-20mins

Is it strategy or chance? Three times in the next two minutes, Kilkenny rain aerial attacks down on the Tipp 'square'. The first ball breaks off Padraic Maher's midriff and is scooped to the wing by Conor O'Mahony; the second is devoured by Brendan Maher, racing out in front of his direct opponent, Eddie Brennan.

The third? Derek Lyng's delivery breaks to Richie Hogan, but he is cornered like a man in a balaclava caught slipping down a drainpipe. It's as if smoke climbs from the stitching of every blue and gold jersey now.

Callanan shanks a first-time pull at the Hill-end goal, then Tipp are deprived a '65' when the umpires miss a Tennyson touch. Woodlock devours PJ Ryan's puck-out and, when the ball breaks off Michael Kavanagh, Lar Corbett meets Walsh's shoulder as if brushing by a flapping newspaper and scores a regal point.

The game is racing now. Brennan scores with his first touch and, from the puck-out, Eoin Kelly jinks Jackie Tyrrell into the front row of the Cusack and scores a divine riposte. Tommy loses patience. He will own the next six minutes in a way that maybe no man has ever declared ownership of a final.

First, he drills an enormous point from someone's living room on Clonliffe Road. Then he proceeds to patrol Kilkenny's back-line like a venomous border guard, plucking two extraordinary balls from the sky as if gifted access to an invisible forklift.

Tommy makes twice as many plays in this segment as the next busiest player, which tells us two things. One, he is a force of nature (which we already knew). Two, the traffic is towards the Hill.

Still, Kilkenny's economy would beguile the ratings people at Standard & Poor. Larkin scores unfussily after Henry's chase and dispossession of O'Mahony and then Brennan makes it two points from two touches.

Tipp close the scoring from a '65' wrongly awarded after the ball goes dead off Pat Kerwick's bas. Swings and roundabouts.

PUCK-OUT SUCCESS: Tipperary 1 of 5; Kilkenny 0 of 5.

PLAYER WITH MOST PLAYS: Tommy Walsh (8).

KILKENNY 0-6; TIPPERARY 0-5.

20-30 mins

Tipp are squeezing. Their aerial authority is becoming the story of the day, Ryan struggling to land a puck-out in anything but hostile fingers.

Not one of his first nine will offer Kilkenny a launch-pad and Brian Cody's response is to pull Shefflin out from full-forward to the 'forty'. Corbett rifles another beauty, but an equalising 25th-minute score from Lyng perfectly captures the tenor of battle.

Henry makes a wonderful fetch and tosses it back to Tommy, who locates Richie Hogan on the wing. Richie is hooked by a retreating Corbett, the ball spilling to Larkin, who runs into a heavy challenge from Callanan. Two of Tipp's blue-chip half-forwards mopping floors on their half-back line.

Eventually, Larkin gets the sliotar away to Lyng, like someone tossing contraband out a window. "Have you ever seen Kilkenny have to work so hard for a score?" gasps Michael Duignan in the RTE commentary booth. We haven't.

Hogan snipes Kilkenny in front from a Tyrrell clearance, but two Kelly frees offer a nice drum-roll for Lar's next chance to pull a dime from behind his ear. This time, Declan Fanning tosses him the sliotar on Tipp's own '45' and all Lar sees before him is open space.

He explodes down the wing, the scent of jet fuel drifting into the lower tiers of the Cusack. After maybe 60 yards, the target seduces him and Corbett lobs his third point of the day like a fisherman casting a fly.

The noise sounds like that of uprising.

PUCK-OUT SUCCESS: Tipperary 1 of 2; Kilkenny 1 of 5.

PLAYER WITH MOST PLAYS: Lar

Corbett (4).

TIPPERARY 0-10; KILKENNY 0-8.

30-35 mins

Maybe time to call in a mystic, for there are strange spirits doing the arithmetic here.

Kilkenny arrive at this segment, having lost 11 of their first 12 puck-outs and with forwards, Richie Power and Aidan Fogarty, having touched the sliotar once in the opening half hour. They are being obliterated in the air.

Yet, in this small pocket of time, the champions hit Tipp in the solar plexus. Just after Henry lobs a free, Corbett releases Callanan towards the Hill-end 'square' and he runs into a dump truck by the name of Tennyson. Callanan's hurley flies up in the air like a spent cartridge. Serious.

Hogan then fluffs a pull at the Canal-end goal, but Tennyson and Brian Hogan claim two Cummins puck-outs in quick succession to set up chances for Brennan and Power. Eddie takes his, Richie is fouled by Padraic Maher, Henry nailing the free.

Kelly equalises for Tipp from under the Cusack after Woodlock's offload, but Power wins another free for Henry off Padraic Maher (the Tipp man using the sliotar as a mattress this time) and then disregards John O'Brien's kind carpentry work on his elbow to get himself off the mark too.

The teams pour down the tunnel, Liam Sheedy intercepting Kirwan en route. His team has been magnificent, yet trails by two. Maybe he's proposing taping the place off as a crime scene.

PUCK-OUT SUCCESS: Tipperary 2 of 4; Kilkenny 2 of 2.

PLAYER WITH MOST PLAYS: Richie

Power (4).

KILKENNY 0-13; TIPPERARY 0-11.

35-45 mins

PJ fires five more puck-out blanks out of five, but it seems hopelessly pedantic to even mention them.

For this is his moment. Kilkenny haven't had an All Star goalkeeper since the Fir Bolg roamed our land, but he's ready to invest in a tux. The clock reads 36.56 when Kerwick torques onto a ball that has gone spilling behind Tyrrell and the Killenaule man shows the peripheral vision of a fish by locating Callanan on the edge of the 'square'.

Callanan drills high to a spot beyond PJ's left shoulder, but, somehow, the goalkeeper adjusts to make a startling parry. Kelly misses the '65', yet Tipp are everywhere now.

Callanan gets off the mark with two points in 44 seconds, one gift-wrapped from Tennyson. Shane McGrath adds another. Though Henry responds with a free, there is the palpable sense of a changing of the guard here.

The clock reads 44.22 when a short Tipp puck-out reaches Corbett via Stapleton and Fanning. Lar is running away from goal, but releases a perfect reverse handpass that pulls Kilkenny open as if they're paper mache figures. Kelly takes and hits in one movement, his feet losing faint purchase in the act.

The sliotar fizzes low to PJ's left and he scoops it away, Blacktie now on standby.

PUCK-OUT SUCCESS: Tipperary 1 of 1; Kilkenny 0 of 5.

PLAYERS WITH MOST PLAYS: Shane McGrath, Pat Kerwick and Seamus Callanan (all 4).

TIPPERARY 0-15; KILKENNY 0-14.

45-55 mins

Reinforcements now come spilling in as both managers shuffle their cards.

Cody will send in TJ Reid, Michael Fennelly and Martin Comerford in this segment. Sheedy opts for Benny Dunne. Lar scores another beauty only to see PJ finally drive a puck-out into Kilkenny hands (Brennan's) for his first success in 13 and Fennelly nails a resultant score.

Then, suddenly, the stitching begins to burst on Tipp's challenge.

A Brendan Maher line-cut drops towards Walsh and Benny and the Tipp man pulls ferociously into Tommy's face guard. Benny's swing makes such little reference to the flight of the ball, there can be no cries of extenuating circumstance. And none are heard, Kirwan flashing red.

Henry, typically, drives over the free from somewhere out in Summerhill and, inexplicably, the Cats are level.

Then the real daftness begins to slip down.

PUCK-OUT SUCCESS: Tipperary 2 of 3; Kilkenny 1 of 4.

PLAYER WITH MOST PLAYS: Padraic Maher and Pat Kerwick (both 3).

TIPPERARY 0-17; KILKENNY 0-17.

55-65 mins

By now, you see, PJ has that impassive look of Wyatt Earp smirking down the barrel of a pistol. Nothing is going to spook him.

Kelly, perhaps nursing a sixth sense of Tipp's need for new momentum, elects to go for goal from a 20-metre free. But he might as well be firing pellets at an army Saracen now as the bould PJ, cigar in mouth, parries the shot out for a '65'.

Now, here's the thing. Kelly (two) and Callanan put 14-man Tipp three points clear, the biggest lead anyone has had all day. Another five successive Kilkenny puck-outs fail to reach their target. Uniquely for a Cody team, the body language is poor.

Brennan doesn't even feign an attempted rescue when his failed lift offers an opportunity for Noel McGrath that the Loughmore prodigy narrowly misses. Two minutes later McGrath atones, but, in the interim, TJ Reid and Henry have snaffled points at the Hill. There are seven minutes of normal time remaining, Tipp ahead by two.

And, in the next 65 seconds, they will be laid out on a slab. First Comerford torques onto PJ's puck-out and handpasses in to Power, who is met by Paul Curran's challenge. A free? Perhaps. But the two keep grappling and, by the time a whistle blows, Richie has used up more than his quota of steps. Free out? No, a penalty.

King Henry blazes it home and Michael Kavanagh collects the puck-out and despatches it back from whence it came. Power nudges Fanning in the back, allowing the ball spill to Larkin, who locates an in-rushing Comerford on the edge of the 'square'. Goal number two.

Tipp's disbelief is articulated by Kelly fluffing a free into the grateful hands of Michael Rice. One of the greatest finals has been all but decided in a minute.

PUCK-OUT SUCCESS: Tipperary 2 of 3; Kilkenny 2 of 7.

PLAYER WITH MOST PLAYS: Shane McGrath (3).

KILKENNY 2-19; TIPPERARY 0-21.

65-70 mins

PJ turns an angled Noel McGrath drive over the crossbar, while cleaning his studs and then, as if to reassert Kilkenny's relationship with the deities, Tyrrell hits a score from 80 yards. Tipp come charging again, but all that remains for them now is a solitary Kelly free.

Larkin, held to a single point all day, will rifle two more in added-time. And it ends maybe in the most apposite manner, a ball dropping into the Kilkenny 'square' and, from the blur of bodies, a red helmet materialising.

Tommy Walsh has the ball and isn't open to negotiating a release. The whistle goes, Tommy throwing both hands in the air without dropping either sliotar or hurley.

Somewhere above him, the gods applaud their own.

PUCK-OUT SUCCESS: Tipperary 4 of 5; Kilkenny 2 of 2.

PLAYER WITH MOST PLAYS: Tommy Walsh (5).

KILKENNY 2-22; TIPPERARY 0-23.

SCORERS -- Kilkenny: H Shefflin 1-8 (0-6f, 1-0 pen), E Brennan, E Larkin 0-3 each, M Comerford 1-0, R Hogan 0-2, D Lyng, T Walsh, M Fennelly, TJ Reid, M Fennelly, R Power 0-1 each. Tipperary: E Kelly 0-13 (0-10f), L Corbett 0-4, S Callanan 0-3, N McGrath 0-2, S McGrath 0-1.

KILKENNY -- PJ Ryan; M Kavanagh, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, J Tennyson; D Lyng, M Rice; E Brennan, E Larkin, R Power; R Hogan, H Shefflin, A Fogarty. Subs: TJ Reid for Fogarty (50), M Fennelly for Lyng (51), M Comerford for Hogan (54).

TIPPERARY -- B Cummins; P Stapleton, P Maher, P Curran; D Fanning, C O'Mahony, B Maher; J Woodlock, S McGrath; P Kerwick, L Corbett, S Callanan; J O'Brien, E Kelly, N McGrath. Subs: B Dunne for O'Brien (47), W Ryan for Kerwick (65), M Webster for Woodlock (69).

Attendance -- 82,106.

Irish Independent

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