Monday 18 December 2017

Top two's level best whets appetites for summer

Tipperary 2-17 Kilkenny 3-14

Kilkenny’s Jason Cleere gives chase after Tipperary’s Niall O’Meara during Saturday’s NHL Division 1A clash at Semple Stadium. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Kilkenny’s Jason Cleere gives chase after Tipperary’s Niall O’Meara during Saturday’s NHL Division 1A clash at Semple Stadium. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The lights blazed and so did the contest on a balmy spring night in Semple Stadium, where you got a distinct sense that the hurling season finally took off.

Up to now, it had been flighty and volatile, tossing out hints of questionable reliability. It was all very different on Saturday night as the game's two leading superpowers delivered something real and substantial.

Kilkenny's Eoin Murphy, supported his full back, Pádraig Walsh, is tackled by Seamus Callanan of Tipperary. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Kilkenny's Eoin Murphy, supported his full back, Pádraig Walsh, is tackled by Seamus Callanan of Tipperary. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

With the exception of shooting (each side had 10 wides), this was as good as you could possibly wish for in pre-championship months. Indeed, it surpassed levels that will apply in many games next summer.

Still, not being one to dramatise, Brian Cody chose understatement mode, describing it as 'a decent game'.

Nudged

"It was competitive - it appeared to be from where I was anyway," he said.

Tipperary's Sean Curran in action against Conor O'Shea, right, and Jason Cleere of Kilkenny. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Tipperary's Sean Curran in action against Conor O'Shea, right, and Jason Cleere of Kilkenny. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Same here, Brian and, no doubt, also in the eyes of the 14,763 spectators, who saw Tipperary surge into an eight-point lead after 23 minutes, followed by a Kilkenny recovery which nudged them a point ahead after 66 minutes before sub Steven O'Brien shot the equaliser.

Tipperary missed some good chances in the final five minutes, including a rocket from Seamus Callanan, which whizzed wide after Eoin Murphy, who has taken last year's All-Star form into the new term, had made a brilliant save from John McGrath.

And so it ended all square, a result that extended Tipperary's unbeaten run to nine games since last April, while greatly increasing Kilkenny's chances of reaching the quarter-finals.

"A draw was a fair reflection. We've often lost those tight ones. It would have been awful hard for either team to go home without something from that match. It gave and it gave," said Tipperary manager Michael Ryan.

Tipperary manager Michael Ryan and Kilkenny boss Brian Cody shake hands. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Tipperary manager Michael Ryan and Kilkenny boss Brian Cody shake hands. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

So it did. And when the 'giving' count was totted up, there was more for Kilkenny to take away, simply because there was more for them to lose if they had been beaten for the third time in four outings.

It would have dropped them deep into relegation territory in a tightly-congested group, whereas a point leaves them with every chance of advancing to the knockout stages if they beat Dublin in the final round.

Of course there was another dimension too. Kilkenny had heard the mutterings among the whispering classes that they were in decline, whereas Tipperary's star twinkled ever higher in the ratings sky.

Defeats by Waterford and Clare in February could hardly be taken as reliable evidence of any team's prospects and certainly not for Kilkenny.

Yet some voices, who should have known better, were musing on whether Kilkenny had hit serious trouble.

They would have spoken even louder if asked for an opinion when goals from John McGrath and Niall O'Meara helped Tipperary into a 2-7 to 1-2 ahead after 22 minutes on Saturday. What followed was a clear illustration that the Kilkenny fundamentals remain as solid as ever.

Their squad depth may not be what is was a few years go but their spirit, work rate and innate capacity to figure a way through problems remains intact. In this instance, it steadied them back into contention, with the recovery greatly enhanced by TJ Reid's penalty goal in the 29th minute to add to the first he blasted in from a half chance in the fifth minute.

Tipperary led by 2-11 to 2-7 at half-time, an advantage they still held heading into the final quarter after both sides had scored a further four points.

A second penalty goal by Reid in the 56th minute highlighted a 15-minute period during which they outscored Tipperary by 1-4 to 0-2.

Apart from Reid, who finished on 3-5, Cillian Buckley, Walter Walsh and Richie Hogan were especially prominent in the revival. That trio scored 0-9 from open play between them in a return to the sort of form that has marked so many big days in Croke Park.

Kilkenny's high-octane performance came as no surprise to Ryan, who was amused to hear suggestions in recent weeks that Tipperary's great rivals were slipping back.

"We never thought it - that's for sure. And if anyone wanted proof that mention of a Kilkenny decline is premature, they got plenty evidence out there tonight. They are - and will be - a very formidable team," he said.

They underlined that after falling eight points behind in a period when Tipperary's movement and passing accuracy were very impressive.

John McGrath made the first big break as early as the third minute, sweeping in a goal and while Reid countered with a Kilkenny goal shortly afterwards, Tipperary were far more fluent for the next 20 minutes.

"We got a great start and we seemed to be causing some problems but Kilkenny worked exceptionally hard as they always do. They took some opportunities and stayed in the game," said Ryan.

They did it extremely well too against opposition whose confidence levels are higher than at any time since the start of 2011, when they were also All-Ireland champions.

"We showed the spirit tonight that we always need to show. I would imagine several questions were being asked of the players.

"It was an important challenge we faced tonight and we faced it well. The response was good but the thing is only starting," said Cody.

Unmistakable

As a portent of what's to come for the rest of the year, it was very encouraging for both sets of supporters who left Thurles with an unmistakable sense that this rivalry will be re-enacted for higher stakes once, or maybe even twice later this year.

Interestingly, Tipperary used four subs to Kilkenny's one, after which Ryan said his squad would welcome the two-week break before the Cork game.

"We need it. Our boys are tired and sore - they're putting in a huge effort. It's an intense five-game series.

"It's also a great five-game series - if we could just play it a little later in the year it would be super," he said.

Scorers - Tipperary: S Callanan 0-6 (3f 1'65'), J McGrath 1-2, N O'Meara 1-1, D McCormack, S Curran 0-2 each, P Maher, N McGrath, J O'Dwyer, S O'Brien 0-1 each. Kilkenny: TJ Reid 3-5 (2-0 pen, 4f), R Hogan 0-4, C Buckley 0-3, W Walsh 0-2.

Tipperary - D Mooney 7; J O'Keeffe 7, J Barry 7, M Cahill 6; T Hamill 6, R Maher 7, P Maher 7; S Curran 7, M Breen 5; D McCormack 7, N O'Meara 7, N McGrath 6; J O'Dwyer 6, S Callanan 7, J McGrath 8. Subs: K Bergin 7 for Breen (35), J Forde 6 for McCormack (55), S Kennedy 7 for Cahill (58), S O'Brien for O'Meara (68).

Kilkenny - E Murphy 8; P Murphy 7, P Walsh 7, C O'Shea 7; C Fogarty 7, S Prendergast 6, J Cleere 6; P Deegan 6, C Buckley 8; C Fennelly 6, R Hogan 8, TJ Reid 9; A Murphy 6, W Walsh 8, L Blanchfield 6. Sub: J Maher 6 for A Murphy (40).

Ref - J Owens (Wexford)

Irish Independent

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