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Cats in league of own

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Michael Fennelly, Kilkenny, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal. Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Final, Kilkenny v Tipperary, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile.

Michael Fennelly, Kilkenny, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal. Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Final, Kilkenny v Tipperary, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile.

Michael Fennelly, Kilkenny, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal. Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Final, Kilkenny v Tipperary, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile.

WE came away from the Kilkenny yesterday certain that they should play more national finals in Nowlan Park. Or maybe, they should just pair Kilkenny and Tipperary off with greater regularity than they currently endure.

In the first league final to be played in Kilkenny hurling's home since 1966 (when the Cats beat the mighty New York) the warring neighbours penned another sparkling chapter into the colourful tome of their recent rivalry, the home side winning their second league final in succession by 2-17 to 0-20.

And – not to be completely ignored – the GAA's most maligned competition signed off with a bang that could yet reverberate right through to summer.

"It was great to win it," reflected Michael Dempsey, Kilkenny's selector, elevated to the role of post match managerial orator in Brian Cody's continued absence.

 

Pressure

"We go out to win every match we play in and obviously there was a bit of added pressure with Brian not being around, and playing in Nowlan Park and playing Tipperary and playing in the league final. So it was great to win such a tight game."

For all the fire and brimstone though, Kilkenny retained a lead almost right the way through and all told, hurled like a more complete, assured team.

Yet the spite which has speckled the most recent installments of this conflict seeped in once again.

It had, naturally enough, been speculated that Lar Corbett could spend some time in the company of Jackie Tyrrell or indeed, Tommy Walsh yesterday, but neither coupling ever materialised.

Instead, Corbett got himself involved in a fairly rough-looking barney with JJ Delaney in the 45th minute. Plenty of rolling around, flailing fists and, in the end, a pair of red cards from Barry Kelly following a consultation with his one of his umpires.

Similarly, there had been fascination at the potential for Pádraic Maher and Michael Rice to pair off, the protagonists in an incident which led to the injury suffered by the latter in last year's All-Ireland semi-final which, at one stage, threatened his career.

Yet Rice continued in midfield alongside Lester Ryan, Kilkenny's find of 2013, who again impressed with a three-point haul.

But it was, without doubt, the returning Michael Fennelly who had the most influential say on the result.

Whether it was Cody – remotely – or Kilkenny's match-day think-tank who decided to station Michael Fennelly on Pádraic Maher is unclear but what a move it ultimately proved.

And expect to see it again, presuming these two collide again further into summer, a successful targeting and exposure of one of Tipperary's areas of immense strength.

Because, there is tough, there is teak tough and then there is the stuff Fennelly and Maher are built of. And the alignment of the two in direct opposition was a bit like directing a loaded freight train at a thick concrete wall.

Fennelly smashed through though, again and again penetrating Maher's comfort zone, turning him with powerful running and plundering two brilliant goals, one just eight minutes in when taking the direct route to goal and then again with 21 minutes played, after demonstrating plenty of tight craft to go with his power.

"Michael Rice and Lester Ryan were fantastic the last day at midfield," explained Dempsey of the thought process behind the call, "and with Richie Power out we felt we needed someone with stature there on the half-forward line. It was a difficult decision but Mick got two great goals in the first half."

At 2-7 to 0-11 at half-time, it was hardly an unscaleable wall which faced Tipp, yet they struggled to find any traction up front.

Noel McGrath hit three points operating largely as a third midfielder and of the five other designated starting attackers, four were taken off, having scored just two points between them, and the other, Corbett, was sent off with nothing within the brackets beside his name.

 

Immense

The likes of Delaney and in particular, Paul Murphy were immense for Kilkenny and it's hard to see another forward line outside Tipp's or Galway's having any sort of luck against them this year.

Instead, the magnificent Brendan Maher – four points from play – found space to unleash shots from the middle of the park while almost half of the Tipp tally came from placed-balls.

They ventured to level terms in the 51st minute, but not enough ball stuck up front and eventually, between Eoin Larkin's frees and a smattering of other scorers (eight on the day), they kept enough distance to safely make it over the line.

"It was a very good battle," surmised a not-too-despondent Eamon O'Shea afterwards, pointedly insisting that in Championship preparation terms, Tipp are still well off full pelt.

"It reminded me of some of the rugby games, you see two really good teams. Our guys did fantastic to stay in that game. I think the better team won the game."


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