John Mullane: Cats' show back on road but more twists lie ahead
TIME and time again, Kilkenny continue to tick the boxes. There can be no argument – they are the greatest team of all time. And you could see what Saturday's victory over Tipperary meant to management and players.
This was as good as beating them in an All-Ireland final. Leading up to the game, Kilkenny were written off and I even heard some of their own people dismissing them, which is very rare.
Pessimism was based on the absence of key players but on a sticky evening, suffocation is a word that came to mind. But it would be too simplistic to suggest that Tipp were suffocated by Kilkenny. It was more a case of dominant defences, with Kilkenny's particularly brilliant in the second half.
The aerial ability of Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan and Kieran Joyce was supreme and Jackie Tyrrell pulled off some fantastic catches.
Nowlan Park is a tight pitch and Kilkenny's ability to ensure their half-forward line drifts down the field enables their defensive sextet to hold their shape, with Hogan manning the centre at all times.
It might look simple but it's a game plan developed over years by the Cats. The holding defenders, helped by deep midfielders and half-forwards, make them very difficult to penetrate.
The key difference between Kilkenny and most other teams who employ this tactic is when the ball is directed high into their full-forward line, they have a unique ability to keep it in there.
The ball rarely breaks to opposition defenders, such is the desire and work rate of Kilkenny's forwards. That allows deep half-forwards to make their way up to collect the breaks.
Tipp also contributed to a great contest and their defence was also suited to Nowlan Park. One area where Tipp profited, and where Waterford might too next Saturday, is when James Woodlock ran at the Kilkenny defence to create two goal chances.
Lar Corbett's loss was huge as he looked sharp and hungry. The knock-on effect of him going off was Paul Murphy thundering into the contest and Eoin Larkin's relocation to midfield showed the benefit of a positional switch to a player whose form had dipped. Once again, astute management from Brian Cody.
It was quite clear that Tipperary were hell-bent on not conceding a goal but the flipside of that was the concession of needless frees and this hurt them badly. There were critical moments too in the second half when Eoin Kelly missed a free, that goal chance and then the resultant '65'.
Eoin Larkin pointed a free to equalise for Kilkenny and instead of Tipp having a three- or four-point buffer, they were pegged back level. Tipp's bottle had been questioned but the reality is that they have brought the best out of Kilkenny in recent years.
And if Tipp brought that kind of intensity to the Munster semi-final against Limerick, they'd still be in the championship because, for me, they're still one of the top three teams in the country and the open spaces of Croke Park suit them perfectly.
Instead, you'll now have talk of possible retirements. The experienced players have time to think and reflect but I see no reason why some of them can't continue. Tipp will still be a serious force over the next few seasons.
This column can't pass without reference to Henry Shefflin. As he was warming up, Tyrrell was preparing to take a sideline cut and when Henry passes by, you can see him shouting to keep it up. Tyrrell responds with a pat on the back and a vow to drive it on.
I also noticed Henry's acknowledgment of Matt Ruth's contribution as he replaced him. He recognises honest endeavour and, in that vein, I think the Tipp public should be proud of their players. Take away what happened last August and they need to recognise this group has gone toe to toe with the greatest of all time over the last four of five years.
And deep down, you can see the respect that Cody and his players have for Tipperary. It was also reflected in the pre-match tinkering as Kilkenny made three changes. It's rare to see Cody shuffling his pack like that.
You might think I'm mad but I think Waterford have a better chance against Kilkenny than they would against Tipp.
Michael Ryan must come up with a game plan to have a chance of winning but it's an ideal situation for Waterford. There's no expectation, compared to other games, and never any shame in losing to Kilkenny.
But with the game in Thurles, they can go up and have a right crack. It's still a wide-open championship and not the foregone conclusion that it might have been in recent years.
The only certainty is that we'll have some more twists and turns before the summer's out.