Sunday 20 January 2019

Kilkenny and Tipp are still the best of enemies: How 2009 set the tone for Longstanding rivalry

Players from Kilkenny and Tipperary confront each other during the first half of League final in 2009
Players from Kilkenny and Tipperary confront each other during the first half of League final in 2009
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

In the early minutes of the 2009 Allianz hurling league final in Thurles, a few incidents set the tone, not just for what was to happen in the following 90 minutes, but for the decade that has followed.

After succumbing meekly to Kilkenny in their regular league meeting in Nowlan Park a couple of months earlier, Tipperary sought to lay down a few markers.

Michael Webster's thundering shoulder into James Ryall as the Kilkenny defender gathered possession in his goalmouth created the opening for Tipperary's first goal.

And, for the second from John O'Brien, Seamus Callanan launched himself into Brian Hogan with a shoulder of such ferocity in the build-up that Kilkenny's centre-back had to retire injured.

When Martin Comerford came on to replace him he lined himself up to shoulder Declan Fanning but Fanning was ready for it and when they finished grappling they were both sent off on yellow cards, the penalty at that time under experimental rules being used by the GAA during those leagues.

The skirmishes did not end there. Henry Shefflin also walked just after half-time on a yellow while players from both sides were fortunate to escape dismissal as altercations flared up everywhere.

Kilkenny captain Henry Shefflin with the cup in 2009
Kilkenny captain Henry Shefflin with the cup in 2009

Tipperary lost, having led by eight points at one stage, but the marker their manager at the time, Liam Sheedy, had wanted had been delivered loud and clear. In the nine years that have followed their rivalry has been like no other in hurling.

Six All-Ireland finals (including the 2014 replay), further league finals in 2013 and 2014 that were both exhilarating, a Nowlan Park qualifier in 2013 and even random league matches in Nowlan Park or Semple Stadium, when you'd think they'd be sick of the sight of each other, just took off.

In 2014 they produced 10 goals between them in Nowlan Park - Kilkenny won by 5-20 to 5-14, with TJ Reid and Seamus Callanan scoring a hat-trick apiece, while last year's draw in Thurles acted like a balm to sooth any Kilkenny anxiety after early losses to Waterford and Clare.

But the blunted expectation that they would meet in yet another national final was reflected by a growing consensus last weekend that Wexford and Limerick were both better placed to win through to this weekend's decider.

Kilkenny were in transition, building a new team.

Tipperary were looking beyond the podium for something from this campaign as illustrated by management's decision not to spring Padraic Maher and Noel McGrath to win their league match in Kilkenny at the end of February.

But even with parallel objectives these counties never, it seems, lose sight of the prize and consequently the 'old firm' are preparing this week to square up to each other in a 10th national final, including that 2009 league final, in 10 seasons, just less than half of the 22 (including three All-Ireland final replays) that have been played in that period. The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems.

Kilkenny's progression was less clearly flagged. After losing their two opening games by three points each to Cork and Clare, their concentration appeared to focus on sidestepping a relegation battle but they won their next three games, the most significant of which was the point they had to spare against Tipperary.

En route Richie Leahy has grown into his midfield role, Martin Keoghan has had big days out against Waterford and Wexford, Conor Delaney's taming of Lee Chin on Sunday was also significant while John Donnelly, Paddy Deegan and Bill Sheehan have made decent contributions on different days.

Reid's leadership through choppy waters has been immense and he has contributed 1-66 from the six games he has featured in to date.

He'll be Kilkenny's sole survivor from that 2009 cauldron that kicked off this latest instalment of an old rivalry.

Padraic, Brendan and Patrick 'Bonner' Maher and McGrath were taking their first tentative steps to fruitful careers that day.

For the most part, Kilkenny have had the upper hand but even with home advantage the odds will be against them on Sunday.

Tipperary manager Michael Ryan has used the league to deepen his panel and different things like Michael Breen in the full-forward line and Cathal Barrett and Ronan Maher at midfield in different games.

The search for a goalkeeper intensified with Paul Maher, Daragh Mooney and Brian Hogan each getting two games before Mooney was elevated for Saturday night's semi-final with Limerick.

In Seamus Callanan's absence and with John O'Dwyer on the periphery, Jason Forde has really stepped up.

They both perhaps got more than they bargained for in this league but, by any law of probability over the last 10 years, the chance of it happening was only slightly less than 50pc.

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Irish Independent

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