Cats keep Indian sign over Tipp after clash for ages
Kilkenny 2-25 Tipperary 1-27 (after extra-time)
If this was a taster of what's to come in the championship, then the 2014 hurling season could well explore even higher peaks than last year.
Last season delivered so much gold-carat excellence that it's difficult to imagine it being surpassed, yet that will will be the hope and expectation after yesterday's league final in Semple Stadium produced 90 minutes of drama, excitement and non-stop entertainment.
Indeed, as the seconds ebbed away late in the second period of extra-time, the hope was that the pulsating encounter would end level and we could look forward to a repeat in Nowlan Park next weekend.
That looked the most likely outcome when Seamus Callanan levelled it up for the 11th time with a free (luckily awarded) late in extra-time, but there was one final twist when Kilkenny manufactured the winning point off a sideline, conceded off a misdirected clearance by Tipperary goalkeeper Darren Gleeson.
A quick interchange between Richie Hogan and TJ Reid presented the latter with a chance to shoot the lead point from the left wing, which he duly did to take his total to 2-11 (2-9 from placed balls). The goals came from penalty strikes, despatched to the Tipperary net in the 35th and 50th minutes.
Both were crucial interventions as Tipperary had leads of five and three points respectively prior to Reid's expertly-finished strikes. Reid and Hogan contributed 2-17 between them on a day which was remarkably reminiscent of the Kilkenny-Tipperary league final in 2009, which also went to extra-time.
Then, as yesterday, Kilkenny edged to victory in what turned out to be a warm-up for an epic All-Ireland final rematch between the counties four months later. Whether that will be the case this year remains to be seen but there's certainly no doubt that Kilkenny and Tipp have put down very solid platforms from which to launch All-Ireland bids.
Kilkenny will do so as three-in-a-row league champions – the first time they have achieved it – but when Tipperary's initial disappointment subsides, they will be delighted with the progress made over the past six weeks.
The grim days up to mid-March, which included successive defeats by Kilkenny, Clare and Galway, are now a distant memory, replaced by a solid sense of optimism, born of wins over Dublin, Cork and Clare, plus yesterday's performance, where the positives easily out-weighed the negatives.
That was no consolation in the immediate aftermath but once the camp gets down to analysing the 90 minutes in their entirety, they will be dealing off a myriad of plus-points.
With a little more accuracy in their general play, Tipp would probably have racked up a 20th league success, but the required refinement work can be carried out before the Munster championship opener against Limerick on June 1.
Among the important advances made by Tipp is a solidifying of their defence and while there's still room for improvement, the resistance is much better-structured than earlier in the season.
Padraic Maher's posting at full-back has played a key role, while Brendan Maher, a genuine candidate for man of the match, has settled in well at No 6. Michael Cahill and Cathal Barrett, who turned it into a deeply frustrating afternoon for Henry Shefflin, had a good day too, while newcomer James Barry grew with the challenge. It left Kilkenny's inside foward trio of Richie Power, Mark Kelly and Shefflin struggling to make an impact, although Power's influence grew when he moved outfield.
Colin Fennely had an indifferent game too, which meant most of the responsibility in attack fell to Reid and Hogan, who delivered in style.
They were well backed up by midfielders Michael Fennelly and Padraig Walsh, while Cillian Buckley had an excellent game at wing-back.
It looked early on as if Kilkenny might set Tipperary an unreachable target by half-time when they popped over four points in the opening five minutes. However, once Tipperary settled into their rhythm, they raised the pressure points on the Kilkenny defence and were rewarded with a string of scores.
They out-scored Kilkenny by 1-11 to 0-4 between the sixth and 30th minutes, the goal coming from John O'Dwyer on the half-hour. A minute earlier, Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy made a great save to deny Kieran Bergin.
Trailing by 1-11 to 0-8 coming towards half-time, Kilkenny were facing their first major challenge of the day and their response was typically defiant. Reid pointed a free followed by a goal from a penalty after Kelly was fouled in the square.
It left Kilkenny trailing by 1-11 to 1-9 at the break, a deficit which had extended to four six minutes into the second half. Reid's second penalty goal brought the sides level in the 50th minute and, from there to the end of normal time, there was never more than two points between the sides.
Kilkenny took a two-point advantage into stoppage-time but points from Shane Bourke and Bergin brought it all square (2-17 to 1-20).
The Cats led by a point after the first period of extra-time and extended it on the restart but Tipperary pointed three times to lead by one after 85 minutes. It was level again heading into stoppage-time before Reid held his nerve to slot the winner.
It was a cruel ending for Tipperary but, on the grander scale, they will take just as much from the day as Kilkenny in terms of a pre-championship lift. Still, they will be bitterly disappointed to have lost successive league finals to their great rivals.
As for those who claim that the league doesn't count for a whole lot, they can scarcely ignore the ferocity of the exchanges right throughout the day. There was even an overspill of tension on the sideline in the first half when Brian Cody approached the Tipperary dug-out, presumably unhappy with something that had been said.
The action on the pitch was at championship intensity too, although lacking the gloss that both sides will apply before they set out on the big adventure.
They will do so from a position of considerable strength and no little confidence after underlining their general wellbeing in a cracking contest.
No doubt, Clare and the other big-time contenders were keeping a close watch on yesterday's proceedings, which provided unquestionable evidence that Kilkenny and Tipperary are perfectly-primed for the season ahead.
Scorers – Kilkenny: TJ Reid 2-11 (0-8fs, 2-0 pen, 0-1 '65'), R Hogan 0-6, R Power 0-3 (1f), P Walsh, M Fennelly 0-2 each, C Fennelly 0-1. Tipperary: S Callanan 0-10 (8f, 1'65'), J O'Dwyer 1-3, N McGrath 0-5 (0-1 line ball), N O'Meara, D Maher, K Bergin 0-2 each, J Woodlock, Patrick Maher, S Bourke 0-1 each.
Kilkenny – E Murphy 7; P Murphy 8, JJ Delaney 8, B Kennedy 7; J Holden 5, J Tyrrell 7, C Buckley 8; M Fennelly 7, P Walsh 8; R Hogan 9, C Fennelly 5, TJ Reid 9; R Power 7, M Kelly 6, H Shefflin 6. Subs: L Ryan 7 for Holden (30), W Walsh 5 for Kelly (43), E Larkin 5 for C Fennelly (60), C Fennelly for Shefflin (73), K Joyce for Kennedy (86).
Tipperary – D Gleeson 6; C Barrett 8, Padraic Maher 8, M Cahill 8; J Barry 7, B Maher 8, C O'Mahony 7; K Bergin 7, J Woodlock 6; D Maher 6, Patrick Maher 7, J O'Dwyer 7; N McGrath 8, S Callanan 6, N O'Meara 6. Subs: G Ryan 7 for Denis Maher (54), S McGrath 6 for Woodlock (55), S Bourke 6 for O'Meara (62), J O'Brien 5 for Callanan (69), S Callanan for J O'Brien (76), J O'Brien for O'Dwyer (80), J O'Dwyer for Bourke (88).
Ref – J Owens (Wexford).
Game at a glance
Man of the match
Richie Hogan (Kilkenny)
Quite a few contenders on both sides but the nod goes to Hogan for his point-taking (he shot 0-6 from play), ball-winning, link play and general sense of industry.
None. Kilkenny led by four points early on and Tipperary led by six on the half-hour but from the start of the second half it was finely balanced all the way.
The sheer splendour of the occasion left the crowd with so much to put in the memory bank. Both sets of supporters will be hoping the year doesn't replicate 2013 when expectations after a great league final weren't realised later on.
TJ Reid's winning point was a thing of beauty, constructed through a clever interchange with Hogan off a line ball.
James Owens made a number of baffling decisions, not least the free which enabled Tipperary to shoot the equaliser before Reid grabbed the winner. It was not a day when his performance matched that of the players.
What They said
Brian Cody (Kilkenny manager):
"We won (the league) last year and we didn't perform particularly well in many of the matches. I would say overall, we've been better (this year). As well as that, we've exhausted the panel fairly much."
Eamon O'Shea (Tipperary manager):
"I thought the (Tipperary) performance was outstanding – my players were outstanding. Anybody that criticised this group of players, they need to think again."
Kilkenny 13 (7 first half; 3 second half; 3 extra-time)
Tipperary 10 (2, 5, 3)
Kilkenny 18 (9, 6, 3)
Tipperary 16 (5, 6, 5)
Kilkenny 1 (M Fennelly 15)
Tipperary 3 (Padraic Maher 34, B Maher 39, C Barrett 47)
Tipperary play Limerick in the Munster semi-final in Thurles on June 1; Kilkenny play Offaly in the Leinster semi-final in Nowlan Park on June 7.