Cats send out early warning
Kilkenny began and ended the 2011 season by beating Tipperary, a pattern they would dearly love to replicate this year.
They achieved the first leg with comprehensive authority in Nowlan Park yesterday, stretching their margin of victory by a point on last year's league win in Thurles, leaving Tipperary with early re-assessment work as they attempt to plot a course back to the hurling summit. Visiting manager Declan Ryan didn't attempt to sugar-coat the unmistakable reality that Kilkenny's dominance was even more pronounced than the final scoreline suggested.
"It looks like Kilkenny are a couple of steps ahead of us and two or three gears ahead of us overall," said Ryan.
Considering that Tipperary beat Kilkenny in the 2010 All-Ireland final, it was an interesting appraisal but one that was well supported by the evidence provided yesterday.
Kilkenny's power-bursts, which yielded 1-5 in the opening 12 minutes, 0-5 in the final 11 minutes of the first half, 1-3 in the third quarter and 0-4 in the closing 11 minutes, left Tipperary struggling in a black-and-amber slipstream.
Kilkenny's returns dipped in the mid-sections of either half but they had so much on deposit that Tipperary's withdrawals were never going to be enough to wipe out such impressive reserves.
As in last year's All-Ireland final, Kilkenny set the benchmark early on, enforcing their game on opposition who, defensively, were unable to cope with a slick combination of deft touch, accurate passing, intelligent running and crisp finishing while, offensively, Tipperary were easily snared by the masters of security.
Kilkenny's first goal came from a penalty in the 12th minute, expertly finished by Richie Power, who was on his way to building a 1-11 total, all from placed balls. It put Kilkenny seven points clear and while Tipp pared it back to three points after 26 minutes, they were five adrift (1-10 to 0-8) at half-time.
Noel McGrath was the only Tipperary forward who looked capable of unpicking Kilkenny's defensive locks, which was in marked contrast to the pattern at the other end, where Kilkenny's menace came from a variety of sources.
Early second-half points by McGrath and Pa Bourke, whose accuracy from frees was most impressive, gave Tipperary brief hope that they might be able to test Kilkenny. However, it died just as quickly when Eoin Larkin, whose clever movement around the attack yielded profit on a number of fronts, hit Kilkenny's second goal off a TJ Reid pass.
Reid gave a fine performance in terms of ball-winning and distribution but was let down by his finishing, shooting four wides which will probably be put down to early-season rust. Michael Rice remained busy and engaged; Colin Fennelly didn't score but contributed handsomely to Power's haul, having won several frees, while Matthew Ruth produced some delightful touches.
If the Kilkenny attack was quick and effective, the defence was solidity at its consistent best, restricting Tipperary's six starting forwards to just three points from open play (all from Noel McGrath).
Ryan's repair work involved replacing no fewer than four attackers, a change rate which underlines Tipperary's problems up front.
The arrival of Shane Bourke proved significant as he helped himself to three points from open play.
Worryingly for Tipperary, they created very few goal chances, a failing which will, inevitably, redirect attention to absent friends in the form of Lar Corbett. His goal-poaching instincts were badly missed yesterday and will remain so unless he can be persuaded to back-track on his surprise withdrawal.
Kilkenny scored two goals and would have at least two more except for fine saves by Brendan Cummins -- a pre-match replacement for Darren Gleeson -- one in either half.
Tipperary may seek some consolation from the fact that they had only eight of last year's All-Ireland final team in the starting line-up but, even allowing for all the changes, they would have expected to run Kilkenny much closer.
"Our lads have a lot of work put in and have been training particularly hard pre-season. The overall display today was disappointing and that's all you could say, really," said Ryan. "Kilkenny looked a lot sharper in their handling and general ball work. Obviously that's something we're going to have to work on considerably over the next while."
He also acknowledged that the new league structure (five group games) puts enormous pressure on teams who lose their opening outing, which makes their clash with Galway really crucial.
"We have to perform from now on -- if we don't, we have no chance of getting to the latter stages (of the league)," said Ryan. "We'll have to sit down and analyse that game. Kilkenny seem to be a good bit ahead of us on today's form so it's a work in progress for Tipp."
For Kilkenny, who started with 12 of last year's All-Ireland team, it was very much a case of business as usual as they put down a clear marker as to their short-term ambitions for this season.
"You have to target as many wins as you can and try to get to the knockout stages. You'd hope to win it if you could but at the same time it's important to look at players and try out maybe one or two (new) lads in every match. Come the end of the league if we hadn't had a chance to look at players it wouldn't be what you'd want," said Brian Cody.
The new league format allows little room for error but Cody didn't have to worry about that yesterday as his squad reached a remarkably high efficiency level for this time of year.
"Teams have had little chance to play much hurling so far so it was a decent standard overall. We got a good start and built on that. Tipp came at us and made a battle of it but our second goal gave us that bit of breathing space," said Cody.
The attendance was 10,664.
Man of the Match -- Eoin Larkin (Kilkenny)
Scorers -- Kilkenny: R Power 1-11 (1-0 pen, 10f, 1 '65'), E Larkin 1-2, M Rice 0-2, M Ruth, TJ Reid 0-1 each. Tipperary: P Bourke 0-6 (5f, 1 '65'), N McGrath, S Bourke 0-3 each, C O'Mahony (f), B Maher, E Kelly 0-1 each.
Kilkenny -- D Herity 7; J Tyrrell 7, JJ Delaney 8, N Hickey 7; T Walsh 8, B Hogan 7, P Murphy 8; P Hogan 7, M Fennelly 7; TJ Reid 8, M Rice 7, E Larkin 9; C Fennelly 7, R Power 8, M Ruth 7. Subs: C Fogarty 7 for Delaney (58), J Mulhall 6 for C Fennelly (62), R Doyle for P Hogan (66).
Tipperary -- B Cummins 7; D Maher 7, P Curran 5, M Cahill 7; S Maher 6, C O'Mahony 6, P Maher 6; B Maher 7, D Young 6; G Ryan 5, N McGrath 8, A Ryan 5; P Bourke 7, B O'Meara 5, J O'Brien 5. Subs: S Bourke 8 for A Ryan (h-t), E Kelly 6 for G Ryan (49), J Woodlock 7 for O'Brien (57), J O'Keeffe 5 for Curran (59), S McGrath for Bourke (65).
Ref -- M Wadding (Waterford)