Tipp change the terms of battle to end doubts over character
No silverware yet for O'Shea's men, but late show of defiance makes massive statement
Is there a natural tipping point in the life of a team that the world has chosen to deride as fragile?
Does the day, inevitably, arrive when habitual sarcasm draws a cut too many? Hurling can entertain extraordinary cruelties and Tipperary, routinely, attract the most withering. They are seen as deficient in game-breaking resilience. In times past, it would have been said they were reared too close to the apron strings.
So every tight game they leave behind blackens their name a little further. If they had lost this, if Kilkenny had edged them in this heaving, groaning masterpiece, everything Tipp brought to Croke Park yesterday would have been obscured hopelessly by the statistic of having come off worst in ten of their last 11 collisions with Brian Cody.
For Kilkenny then, read nerveless, savvied, ruthless. For Tipp? Unreliable.
How can that be when so many of the games between them unspool as epics? Yesterday's was unequivocally the greatest game of hurling this writer has had the privilege to witness, yet Tipp might easily have been reduced again to the role of courtiers in Kilkenny's world.
It happened after the League final (second best game of the year incidentally) and it happened after the All-Ireland finals of '09 and '11. There is simply no kindness open to them in losing, irrespective of circumstance.
Even the victory of '10 is asterisked by Henry's knee and Brian Hogan's absence with a broken finger.
So this felt a new beginning of sorts. They didn't beat Kilkenny, true. But they did produce a game that drew something epochal from the old, striped warriors. And in the end they were, literally, the width of a post away from their greatest win of modern times. If it wasn't for Hawk-Eye, human error might even have given it to them.
Until yesterday, Kilkenny-Tipp felt as if it was becoming a story of damage. Now its terms and conditions have changed.
We got 54 scores and just nine wides in Croke Park. We got a pendulum swinging like a clothesline in a gale. We got spectacular human endeavour and unimaginable bravery. We got endless spirals of glory.
But Kilkenny, palpably, do not understand the world the rest of us live in. If they did, the 'house private' sign would be up today. They should have been obliterated yesterday by a Tipp attack that was all but note-perfect from start to finish. Five of Tipp's starting forwards looked close to unplayable and, had Seamus Callanan or John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer converted penalties, Kilkenny's resistance would surely have snapped like a twig.
But you need to empty the full chamber against these men and Tipp didn't quite do that. Within seconds of Bubbles' penalty being saved, Richie Hogan was swinging over a point at the Hill. There were 12 minutes remaining now, Kilkenny leading by four. If Tipp played true to caricature now, they'd go under.
There's nothing cerebral about a game at that juncture, you stay in it only if you have the character.
And Tipp found it. They won the remainder 0-5 to 0-1, every one of their scores coming from play. It was quite a statement.
"A lot of people around the country don't believe in this team," gasped Shane McGrath when it was over. "But we've got total belief in ourselves." Padraic Maher was of a similar mindset. "It (character) is something people have questioned us about in the past" he said. "But we answered those questions there today."
They did too. But they must answer them again.
There would have been some cruelty in Bubbles nailing that late monster, 97-metre free, for it was awarded against Brian Hogan for what looked a simple collision with Padraic Maher. Cody admitted after that he expected O'Dwyer to score, given the purity in his wrists.
The Kilkenny boss was entitled to that expectation. For O'Dwyer, Callanan and Patrick 'Bonner' Maher all sustained their scintillating summer form through this game. The bonus for Tipp was that Noel McGrath had caught fire again and, even more so, Larry Corbett was wreaking terror.
For Eamon O'Shea, this was a vision of beauty.
"Look these are brilliant games, brilliant times," grinned the Tipp manager. "We're not happy we didn't win it but, by God, did they give everything. Tipperary can be proud tonight and we just go back and prepare for the next day.
"Look it was a magnificent day and it's just fantastic that we have another chance for both teams. I'd have preferred to win it, but it's a good result in fairness. I'm very happy with my team."
If there's a stone in Tipp's shoe, it maybe resides in the nature of that happiness.
Imagine firing 1-28 against Kilkenny only to find they are still breathing. There were times in the opening half when Bonner Maher looked like beating them on his own, yet TJ Reid was an endless worry for James Barry and it was his through pass that gave Richie Power a 26th-minute goal. It meant that, having been dominated, Kilkenny were trailing by just two at halfway.
Then TJ drilled that extraordinary goal just after the resumption and, from there, the most influential player on the field became Richie Hogan.
For maybe 20 minutes, he was a one-man terror squad, subdued only when substitute Michael Cahill arrived to play chaperone. Kilkenny's difficulty was the sheer quality of Tipp's striking.
To shoot a paltry four wides in a contest of this intensity wasn't just remarkable, it constituted a small miracle. Tipp looked like scoring every time the ball got in to their attack and Corbett, particularly, looked hell-bent on going for the jugular.
For Cody, the game had to represent some kind of terror-ride.
"It was a serious game," he reflected later. "It was impossible to know what was going to happen out there.
"We took control, they took control and scores were coming thick and fast. I'm sure for those people who were able to sit back and watch it was an excellent game."
The aesthetics, you knew, were the least of his concern. For there was just the faintest sense of these two teams reaching a curious point of intersection yesterday.
Cody did not send Henry Shefflin in until four minutes from the end. He left Tommy Walsh sitting in the stand.
Two of the greatest players of the modern age now seem on the distant periphery of his thinking for this Kilkenny team.
O'Shea, on the other hand, talked of Tipp being "in transition". He looked and sounded like a man who knew more about his team now than he had known yesterday morning.
He could see no fragility in front of him.
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