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Friday 26 May 2017

Jamesie O'Connor: Season started slowly but climaxed in epic encounters

It's no surprise that the best was saved till last yet the quality on display was simply breathtaking

Jamesie O'Connor

The brief: pick the three biggest moments in hurling in 2016. No easy task, so further clarity is sought. What exactly are you looking for, Mr Sports Editor? The answer: "A score, a block, a substitution, a refereeing decision, a performance - l don't know, just give me the key moments in the hurling year."

To be honest, it was a pretty drab season until August. Only then did things take off, but take off they did. It shouldn't come as any great surprise that the highlights reel is confined to the epic last four games of the year. A cracking first All-Ireland semi-final. Two absolute belters in the replay and second semi-final the following weekend; and a final that lived up to its billing. All in all, an utterly memorable finish, albeit after an entirely forgettable start.

The catch - Eoin Murphy.

The time: 73.04. The score: Kilkenny 2-18, Waterford 2-17. A magical night in Thurles is reaching its denouement. Three minutes of additional time have been indicated, so time is officially up. Referee James McGrath doesn't look inclined to blow the whistle just yet, though.

A disputed line ball means he's signalled a throw-in on the new stand side of the field. There's a cacophony of whistles from the Kilkenny supporters. It's just as well for McGrath that the action is where it is, because on the opposite side of the field, Brian Cody is as animated on the sideline as I can remember. Out-hurled six days earlier, a late Walter Walsh goal got Kilkenny out of jail. Now after reshuffling the deck, Cody's side look set to edge what's been a truly epic match.

Back on the field and corner back Shane Fives has somehow hoovered the ball up in the resultant ruck and powers forward. He breaks the first tackle, but three Kilkenny players are in close pursuit. Just before he reaches their 65, Walter Walsh has a little tug at his right arm. It's innocuous looking, Walsh only holds on for a split second, but McGrath - right up with the play - spots the indiscretion and awards the free.

Pauric Mahony, whose 2015 season ended prematurely with a badly broken leg, stands over it. The crowd are on their feet, and down pitch-side, working for Sky, we're readying ourselves for extra time. The atmosphere is electric, the tension is gripping. It's no gimme, but the form he's in, I'm expecting and- with the empathy of the former free-taker coming out - willing him to nail it. Mahoney went up in my estimation no end six days earlier, after the tour de force he gave in Croke Park. He bends, lifts and strikes. It's immediately evident the shot is on target, but will it have the legs to get there?

Eoin Murphy (above left) in the Kilkenny goal doesn't hesitate, and doesn't play it safe either. At full stretch, he leaps and catches it fully six inches, if not more, over the crossbar - and in a flash he's scurrying to clear his lines. Bad things can happen when goalkeepers try to take balls down like that, and this is in the dying seconds of an All-Ireland semi-final with everything on the line. Instinct takes over though; Murphy doesn't think of anything else and backs himself to do the right thing. Both Shane Prendergast and Joey Holden raise their hands momentarily over their heads in jubilation and exhausted relief as the clearance flies up the field. There will be no extra time. They have made it.

And yet still no whistle comes. It's 74.47 on the clock and both Cody and selector James McGarry are pointing furiously at their watches. One last attack has to be repelled, and the game finishes with Richie Hogan firing the final nail into Waterford's coffin with a point from midfield to secure an epic two-point win, in a game that had everything.

The tackle, the hook, the injury - Pádraic Maher, Conor Cooney, Joe Canning

Croke Park, less than 24 hours later. There is 22 minutes gone between Tipp and Galway in the second semi-final. Joe Canning (above centre) has started well and has just drilled a free to level proceedings. It's clearly evident this is going to be every bit as close and hard-fought as the night before. From the puck-out, Tipp secure possession, but hard tackling from the Galway defence leads to a turnover, and David Burke is on to it. He releases a hand pass up the sideline to Canning, who rides a tackle just as he gathers possession. Before he can fully brace himself, Pádraic Maher arrives and delivers a ferocious, bone-shuddering hit - shoulder to shoulder - that leaves both men on the ground.

Canning requires treatment for a cut to the head, as does Maher, where their helmets came into contact, but it has rattled both men to their core, and is a real statement of intent from the Tipperary man.

Ten minutes later, Galway 1-9, Tipp 0-10, and the Tribesmen are on the attack. Joseph Cooney puts a super pass back across the Tipperary square from the end-line to find the unmarked Conor Cooney. Cooney has already scored Galway's first goal and on his own, less than ten yards out and with only Darren Gleeson to beat, now has an arguably easier chance. Thinking he has all the time in the world, he makes the fatal error of standing to strike. A single step to his right, or electing for placement rather than power, and the ball is in the Tipp net to put Galway five points clear. But that split-second decision - the wrong decision, to wind up and bury it - allows the rapidly closing Maher the chance to deny him. Diving at full stretch, the last-gasp hook is perfectly executed and Tipp have dodged a major bullet coming up to half time.

Minutes later, the deficit is back to one - and the clock ticks into the 36th minute. Galway have just lost Adrian Tuohy to injury and are now about to suffer a second, more grievous, blow. Sprinting for a ball on the Cusack Stand side of the field, Joe Canning goes down clutching the back of his left leg. What's later diagnosed as a two-inch tear to his hamstring will not only end his season, but ultimately require surgery. Was the earlier hit from Maher a contributing factor? We'll never know, but in a game they ultimately lose by the narrowest of margins, it's a key turning point.

The score, the performance - Seamus Callanan

All-Ireland final. Forget about the final margin, this was a proper contest. Ten points-all after 26 minutes. Twelve all after 32, and it's end-to-end stuff with nothing between the sides. Seamus Callanan (left) has started well - four points from play in the opening half-hour and approaching the interval, denying the space Tipp are creating for him is the primary concern for the Kilkenny management.

It reads 32.52 on the clock, and a high diagonal ball from John McGrath drops just inside the 21-metre line in front of the Kilkenny goal. With his left hand fending off Joey Holden, Callanan takes it down right-handed from the air with his first touch. Before it hits the ground, his second flicks it back over the head of the in-rushing Cillian Buckley, who has tracked the run of Bonnar Maher. He then catches it but has to adjust his feet and delay the shot a fraction of a second to avoid the rapidly converging Paul Murphy's attempted block.

It's a rocket that flies inches over the crossbar of the diving Eoin Murphy. It's a sublime piece of skill, his fifth point of the day from play; and were it centimetres lower, we'd be talking about it as one of the greatest goals ever scored in Croke Park.

Tipp go in two clear at the break, poor value for the early dominance they'd exerted, and a deficit comfortably within Kilkenny's compass. Kevin Kelly's 42nd minute goal puts the Cats back in front, and the momentum of the match threatens to swing their way. Pick a winner now?

Callanan, however, continues to cause mayhem, and with Bubbles O'Dwyer and John McGrath in support, Tipp have the superior firepower. They're also dictating the terms of engagement, and with their midfielders and half backs dragged far out the field, the Kilkenny full back line are left badly exposed. Tipp's number 14 finishes with nine points from play, and had Bubbles taken the right option and passed to him when wide open in the 50th minute, he'd have had a goal to go with it.

It's the highest individual tally from play in an All-Ireland final. To amass that total in any championship match is a feat in itself. To do so on the biggest day of the hurling year, against a Kilkenny side going for three in a row, is a huge achievement. Hats off to the performance of the year.

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