Friday 27 April 2018

Cats prove to have unmatched appetite for major honours

Tipp have no answer for a team playing as though it was starved of success

TJ Reid and Michael Fennelly, Kilkenny, in action against Michael Cahill, Tipperary
TJ Reid and Michael Fennelly, Kilkenny, in action against Michael Cahill, Tipperary

Eamonn Sweeney

What more can you say about these lads? Who is like them? Who's ever been like them? Time and again in this saga Kilkenny looked to be on the verge of losing it, appeared to be just hanging on the coat-tails of younger and quicker opposition.

No other team would have survived in the face of the stuff Tipperary played first-time out, perhaps the best hurling that has ever been played by in a final by a team which didn't win it. But survive Kilkenny did and the planning for round two began.

In the mythology of his opponents, Brian Cody has probably assumed the status of some Bond villain. Yet there was a sense that by scoring five of the last six points in the drawn match, and going within inches of winning it, Tipperary had wrested the momentum in their direction.

The impression that the Munster side had more to be happy about than their Leinster rivals was confirmed by the team selections. Eamon O'Shea happily went with the same team, Cody on the other hand made three changes as though bearing out that old cliché about reputations mattering little when the Black and Amber team is named.

And two of those changes, the introductions of Padraig Walsh and Kieran Joyce in the half-back line, set the tone for a match very different from the first outing. A Kilkenny defence, whose display in the drawn match largely consisted of arriving on the scene to watch Tipperary forwards sweeping another shot over the bar, were an entirely different prospect and Joyce and Walsh played a key role in this.

Realistically, the replay was never going to approach the heights of the drawn game. In fact it's probably asking a bit much to get another final as good as that first Kilkenny-Tipperary match in the next 20 years let alone three weeks later.

But second-time out, we got a reminder that All-Ireland finals are won by artisan virtues as well as artistic ones. This time round defenders reminded us that they too have a large say in the destination of Liam MacCarthy. It was a day for digging deep instead of soaring high. It was a John rather than a Jimmy Doyle kind of final.

Yet by half-time Tipperary had still created three great goal chances. Joyce's intervention foiled Bonner Maher of the first one, a sublime hook by JJ Delaney halted Seamus Callanan in full stride second-time around but on the third occasion, Lar Corbett's piercing run and well-timed pass gave Callanan enough room to beat Eoin Murphy. It was a reminder of what would happen to the Cats if they let their concentration drop.

In the mythology of the game, Kilkenny are the great stylists while Tipperary are defined by their steel. Yet this is a reductive way to look at both counties. Tipp is also the county of Paddy Kenny, Babs Keating, Donie Nealon and Nicky English, while Kilkenny will always have a place in its heart for the likes of Pa Dillon, Dick O'Hara and Eddie O'Connor. And to a certain extent this final was about the efforts of Tipperary to break loose of the shackles imposed by Kilkenny so that they could repeat their hurling of the first game.

Instead, Kilkenny gave one of the finest defensive performances of the Cody era. Had this been mirrored by their attack they might have been out of sight entering the final ten minutes. Yet the failure of things to go according to plan in this area was underlined by the sight of Richie Hogan, still the Player of the Year, being withdrawn. It was a big call from the big man yet when the introduction of Henry Shefflin in Hogan's stead was followed immediately by a typically superb goal from Richie Power, Kilkenny could practically see the Liam MacCarthy Cup heading towards the Nore.

And just to confirm that pretty much everything Cody touches in an All-Ireland final turns to gold, it was followed by a goal from the third player he'd brought in for the replay, John Power rising like a slam-dunking basketballer to finish after a couple of shots had pinballed around in front of the Tipperary goal. A minute later Paul Murphy was blocking a Callanan shot on the line. A couple of minutes before the Power goal, Callanan had stood over a penalty and opted to put it over the bar. It was one of those decisions whose wisdom or otherwise is ultimately decided by the result.

There has never been a team, or a manager, in GAA history like these Kilkenny hurlers. And the thing which struck you most was their extraordinary hunger. There were two block-downs and a hook inside the first minute and for the whole 70 minutes, players who have several All-Ireland medals ran and chased and harried as though they were representing some little county who hadn't been in the final in half a century. To say that Kilkenny wanted it more is not to insult Tipperary's desire. Kilkenny always want it more, their appetite is insatiable.

Callanan's second goal with a minute left was another reminder of what Tipperary had in their locker but the narrow victory has a kind of emblematic status in Kilkenny tradition.

Sang-froid is what they do and the sight of Colin Fennelly, from one of the county's greatest clans, striking the final point was hugely fitting.

Kilkenny abide. Skilful, honest, hard working, tough, athletic, unassuming and bullshit free, they are as admirable as any team in any sport that ever took the field in this country.

They are a light that never goes out.

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