Kilkenny's crowning glory
Unrivalled appetite of this ageing team an example to everyone, writes Dermot Crowe
Kilkenny have had memorable and magical days since Brian Cody first took over from Kevin Fennelly in the autumn of 1998, too many to mention here, but yesterday may have surpassed them all. Producing an outstanding second-half performance with the streak of defiance which has become their trademark, they collected a 10th All-Ireland in 16 seasons under Cody's rule. Nothing like their dominance has ever been seen before.
They won by a goal, 2-17 to 2-14, to mark their third All-Ireland final win over Tipperary from four attempts since the rivalry's furnace was re-lit in 2009. It is an ancient rivalry of course, but this modern series, with its the spread of matches, and the drama it has provided, is unsurpassed. This was their sixth year in succession to meet in the championship. If there was a hint of Tipp being ready to overthrow Kilkenny after the drawn game, when they scored 1-24 from play, then Kilkenny firmly rebutted those claims.
They did it with an exemplary team performance, one of their best, though they really only took off after half-time. Two points down at the interval, they went back out and shot five unanswered points. Tipp never recovered fully from the shock. They were only a point behind when, in the 59th minute, Richie Power scored a goal to widen then gap to four. A minute earlier Tipp had a lifeline, when Bonner Maher won a penalty. Seamus Callanan elected to point, leaving the minimum between them. Four minutes after Power's goal, his brother John had another, at the second attempt after Darren Gleeson saved the first effort, and Tipp, six points down, were done.
Well, not quite. They were brave, and certainly desperate, and pressed forward. Paul Murphy had to save near his goal line and when Brendan Maher's late point was followed by Callanan's goal, his second of the game, only two points separated the sides with a minute of normal time left. In additional time Colin Fennelly made it safe and Kilkenny rejoiced. Anything less than a Kilkenny win would have been larceny.
It was a special day for Henry Shefflin, who came on with 12 minutes left to win his 10th All-Ireland medal at 35. He can retire happily now - if he does retire, that is. Oddly, given his spectacular form this year, it was Richie Hogan that Shefflin replaced. Hogan started centre-forward and had two first-half points but could not match the six scored the first day.
By then Tipp were in serious trouble, having looked the better team in the first half, leading 1-7 to 0-8 at the interval. Shane McGrath summed up their fortune swing. He scored three exceptional points in a brilliant first half; he was taken off in the second. Lar Corbett, although he made some good contributions, failed to score and the Tipp forwards did not get the same freedom as three weeks earlier. Callanan, the championship's top scorer, scored two goals, the first a peach and a classic piece of Tipp forward play and lethal execution, set up by a scorching run by Corbett.
Having witnessed a hurling masterpiece three weeks earlier, the crowds came to Croke Park pregnant with expectation. It seemed nearly too much to ask for the same again but the quality moved seamlessly from one epic match to another. Hurling is now in the grip of infinite possibility. There appears to be no limits to what we can expect to see.
Kilkenny and Tipperary has become a familiar spectacle but not a tiresome one. Even if it did not quite match the first day's scoring extravaganza, the ceaseless intensity reminded one of the time the former Gaelic games correspondent John D Hickey informed readers of a match so dramatic that at one point he had found himself trying to light a match with a cigarette.
Kilkenny's win was founded on heroic defence in which Kieran Joyce came in at centre-back for Brian Hogan and played an outstanding match. Cillian Buckley and Padraig Walsh, another team change, were also exceptional. On these men's shoulder Tipp's All-Ireland hopes foundered. It reflected well on the management's judgement in selection. Two of the three changes were in defence after the team that conceded 1-24 from play to Tipp in the drawn game.
Having scored just 0-8 in the first half, Kilkenny went 0-13 to 1-7 up inside to seven minutes of the restart. They could have had a goal but for a brilliant save by Darren Gleeson when Eoin Larkin set up Colin Fennelly. Tipp steadied themselves with scores from Callanan, a free, and Noel McGrath but were relieved again in the 50th minute when Richie Power set his brother John free with a diagonal pass but the shot came off James Barry.
Tipperary tried all they could but Kilkenny were playing the match on their terms. They have won a championship with a team that, in some departments, is ageing and should not have this hunger for victory. They are an example to all teams. They are great champions.
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