Friday 20 April 2018

Beautiful and wild as ice-veined Cats snag the silver

TJ Reid scores the second Kilkenny penalty
TJ Reid scores the second Kilkenny penalty
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

These games find their own truth, albeit Kilkenny have an uncanny way of influencing the decision. Thurles was dark as the inside of a church yesterday, the bruised sky lending a kind of twilight-zone air to a game thieved, in all but name, straight out of high summer.

Come May, managers like tidiness in their heads, but this offered little. It was a beautifully wild and eccentric league final that simply reminded those present how empty life would be without big hurling days.

You watched Brendan Maher stride, stone-faced, down the tunnel afterwards – the Tipperary captain's jersey and shorts flecked heavily with blood – and it was a reminder that nothing ennobles these contests quite like the candour of the manliness.

Kilkenny, typically, won the great, roiling exchange with a moment of ice-veined intelligence, TJ Reid's short line 'cut' to Richie Hogan rewarded with a perfect return-pass for Reid to impose Old Testament punishment on Darren Gleeson's errant free.

The outcome, thus, followed the line of recent form in Kilkenny-Tipp. Our minds are prejudiced to expect it now, the game reaching some kind of coruscating arc before Kilkenny then grab the silverware like men clearing litter from a terrace just as the rest of the world leans back on a pillow to catch its breath.

Still, it would be wretchedly unkind on Tipp to imagine some kind of character deficit here. The manner in which they recovered from two self-inflicted wounds in the dying flurries of normal time to rescue the game was nothing less than heroic. And, thereafter, the outcome simply swung on such an erratic hinge, it felt the equivalent of settling business with a scratch card.

It could be argued that Kilkenny find themselves inordinately lucky in such circumstances, but the hunch must surely be that they are a breed who make their own luck.

For Brian Cody, the eighth league title of his reign was, you had to suspect, of less significance than the industrial texture of the context. He laughed off a first-half incident in which he was drawn to the Tipperary dug-out for what seemed a sharp verbal exchange. "I think I made a mistake in which bench I was at," he smiled impassively after. "That happens. We're neighbouring counties, you know. Who knows what can happen? It was a great day like, it was a great day's hurling and a great day's passion for the whole thing, and long may it last."

Quite how much that passion will have taken out of either camp is, for now, impossible to read. Both seemed to step away from last year's league implausibly fatigued yet, if anything, the investment this time looked even greater. That said, both have unearthed gems.

Tipp's backs hurled mightily, especially down their right flank where Cathal Barrett and James Barry look outstanding finds. Kilkenny will surely have to find a summer place for Brian Kennedy at No 4 and, given Jackie Tyrrell's stormer at centre-back yesterday, that puzzle might just have solved itself.

But, elsewhere, much of the water remains silted. Two of Kilkenny's league finds – Joey Holden and Mark Kelly – were replaced early and Tipp's early Hurler of the Year contender, Seamie Callanan, ran down that familiar cul-de-sac, otherwise known as JJ Delaney.

When big games climb to this kind of irrational temperature, reputations silently burn.

Eamon O'Shea could, thus, have been forgiven had he walked around after with a head-full of ghosts. Yet, if there was an unfamiliar terseness in the tone of his answers to media, you could understand his lack of appetite for any detailed forensic. What sense is there over-analysing an epic won by a nose? Asked to identify the "difference" between the teams, he said flatly: "There was no difference! It was just a game. We lost the game by a point, I don't believe in lucky and unlucky. My players were outstanding. Anybody who criticises this group of players, I think you need to think again."

Tipp should maybe have been further than two points ahead at the interval, many in the stadium questioning the injury-time penalty awarded against Padraic Maher for a collision with Kelly. Their backs' desire to take the ball into contact rather than favour early delivery also led, occasionally, to needless turnovers.

Against Kilkenny, a randomly directed clearance is clearly ill-advised but, sometimes, it is wise not to loiter. That said, Tipp have grown immeasurably in recent weeks, the steely alignment of their backs particularly unrecognisable from the human colander of the early rounds. Niall O'Meara hurled with real moxy too against an opponent of Paul Murphy's calibre and Noel McGrath's hunger for battle was reassuringly evident all through.

That said, Kilkenny had maybe the best two forwards on view in Reid and Hogan, lending their late union for the decisive score an apposite touch.

How close was it all to championship pace? "Very close," said Eoin Larkin, his considered view being that the game would compare favourably in terms of quality with that other 90-minute Kilkenny-Tipp league final of five years ago.

Of course, tiny things decide such contests and, in yesterday's immediate aftermath, those things were difficult to identify, let alone parse.

"It was good, a really serious game," agreed Cody. "It was a great game for people to look at and a great game for people to take part in. Obviously it was a huge test, a test you'd like to be getting. It was just mad stuff."

Asked if he felt Kilkenny to be in a better place now than 12 months back, the manager was unequivocal.

"I would, to be fair," he insisted. "We won last year and we didn't perform particularly well in many of the matches. I would say, overall, we've been better but, as well as that, we've exhausted the panel fairly much."

For O'Shea, the only negative was, again, the bottom line.

"I can't change what happened," he reflected. "What happens in a game happens in a game. You get penalties, you don't get penalties. I could spend my life worrying about this but I have to move on. I'm just really proud of the players – they put in a huge effort. I'm not going to be critical of anybody."

On another day of days, he had no reason.

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