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Kilkenny cement their greatness


IT provided enough talking points to fuel a debating society long into the winter but, first, let's acknowledge yesterday's encounter for the incredible contest and spectacle that it was.

How fitting that in the GAA's 125th year and with Kilkenny bidding for a place in history as the first county to win seven All-Ireland titles in a decade -- not to mention becoming the first to win four-in-a-row for 65 years -- the game didn't just live up to expectations but exceeded them with a spectacular flourish which illuminated a dark afternoon in Croke Park.

The 2009 final can make an immediate application for admission to the 'Epic Hall of Fame' and only the most carping would advocate rejection. Even then, they will be ridiculed for their lack of soul after a wonderful occasion which more than compensated for the disappointing finals of the last two years.

Now -- as in 2007 and 2008 -- it ended with Kilkenny as All-Ireland champions, only this time after being driven to the limits of their remarkable endurance by an outstanding Tipperary effort. If Limerick and Waterford lacked the necessary substance to seriously test Kilkenny in the last two finals, Tipperary matched the champions in just about every department, except experience, as they drove themselves through new frontiers.

Ultimately, they came up short as Kilkenny took their total to 28 points which has been their consistent championship average over recent years. However, unlike so many other days where they harvested their bountiful yields in a fairly even spread over the full game, they packed the match-winning salvo into the final seven minutes.

They outgunned Tipperary by 2-3 to 0-2 over that closing stretch with the launch pad arriving in rather controversial circumstances at a time when it looked as if Tipperary's relentless effort might have put them in a winning position.

Noel McGrath's 62nd-minute point gave Tipperary a two-point lead (21-19) which was more than satisfactory for the challengers, who had coped superbly with being a man down after sub Benny Dunne was dismissed on a straight red car for a pull on Tommy Walsh in the 54th minute.

It was a serious error of judgement by such an experienced player and when Henry Shefflin pointed the resultant free to bring the sides level for the 11th time, the initiative appeared to have nudged in Kilkenny's direction. But, not for the first time in the course of an afternoon when Tipperary underlined in the most emphatic terms just how a formidable force they now are, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

Tipperary hadn't shirked their responsibilities all day and now dug in for another session of heavy lifting during which they opened a three-point lead on the hour mark and were still two clear when Richie Power began a surge towards goal three minutes later.

He looked to have been fouled outside the square but referee Diarmuid Kirwan didn't blow and as the Kilkenny poacher drove into the square he was adjudged to have been impeded illegally by Paul Curran.

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The call was tough on Tipperary as Kirwan awarded a penalty which Shefflin powered to the net. It was a superb strike in highly-pressurised circumstances but then Shefflin has specialised in delivering under the most intense scrutiny right through this decade.

With the Tipperary defence doing an excellent job in restricting his space through most of yesterday's game, he managed just one point from play but still ended up on 1-8 to take him within three points of Eddie Keher on the all-time championship scoring lists.

His goal put Kilkenny a point ahead and, typical of their instinctive ability to exploit a new-found advantage, they struck for a crucial second goal a minute later when sub Martin Comerford underlined his predatory nature by beating Brendan Cummins with a low drive.

Tipperary twice cut the gap to three points in the closing minutes but two late points by Eoin Larkin gave Kilkenny a cushion as they motored on to their 32nd All-Ireland title, taking them two clear of Cork.

There were times when even Kilkenny's steel-hard character must have wondered if an 18th successive championship win would elude them against a Tipperary team that rose magnificently to the biggest challenge of their rapidly-expanding careers. They matched Kilkenny in intensity and physicality all the way in a game where the referee let play flow if all possible.

At the same time, Tipperary enjoyed a substantial advantage in the free count, having been awarded 19 to Kilkenny's eight. It was quite a differential, the reason for which wasn't immediately apparent but, in the end, Tipperary will feel that the crucial penalty award was the most significant decision of all.

The sides were level seven times in the first half before Kilkenny scored two points in stoppage time to lead 0-13 to 0-11 at the interval. It was the most marginal of swings but Tipperary would have been happy with their first-half performance as it proved they really were up to the challenge.

Declan Fanning and Conor O'Mahony had hurled superbly in the half-back line; Shane McGrath and James Woodlock were productive off midfield breaks; Lar Corbett's outfield adventures enabled him to pick off three points in half an hour while Eoin Kelly, who finished on 0-13, was threatening to revisit his very best days at full-forward.

Kilkenny, as is their wont, prospered in high-powered bursts, scoring four points between the 16th and 19th minutes and another five in the last seven minutes of the half.

Nevertheless, the first half would have reinforced Tipperary's view that they were onto something. They had a clear chance of a goal two minutes after the restart when Seamus Callanan cut in on goal but his drive was brilliantly turned out for a '65 by PJ Ryan. It was a crucial moment and Ryan delivered again in the 45th minute, turning Kelly's low drive out for another '65.

Significantly, Tipperary had begun to create the goal openings but unlike the rest of the campaign where they yielded rich pickings, Ryan's excellence denied them this time.

Still, Tipperary enjoyed a good spell during which they should have scored more than they did. They hit six wides to Kilkenny's two in the second half, a telling statistic which will be a source of regret for a very long time.

Brian Cody began unloading his impressive subs' bench in the 50th minute, sending on TJ Reid, Michael Fennelly and Comerford in quick succession. All three made a significant impact, scoring 1-2 between them, whereas Tipperary's first sub was back on the bench on a red card after just seven minutes and Liam Sheedy didn't despatch any others into action until the 66th minute.

If Kilkenny's subs made a big impact in the final quarter, Tommy Walsh did it for the full 70 minutes. Truly a wonderful talent, his capacity to deliver at the peak of his magical powers every time he plays is quite remarkable.

John Tennyson also resisted well while Jackie Tyrrell embellished his defensive efforts with an inspiring long-range point late on. Eddie Brennan made most impact in the first half; Larkin reserved his best for the last quarter while Shefflin kept the score-board ticking over from frees.

And when the chance to make a match-turning intervention presented itself with the penalty, he was man enough to respond. That's hardly a surprise but then the same applies to all of this Kilkenny squad in their many and varied ways as they asserted themselves as the greatest of all time.

Results don't lie and Kilkenny's title haul -- seven All-Irelands, nine Leinster and five National Leagues in a decade -- is something that was never previously achieved. What's more, it's a target that may never be reached again.

Scorers -- Kilkenny: H Shefflin 1-8 (7f, 1-0 pen), E Brennan, E Larkin 0-3 each, M Comerford 1-0, R Hogan 0-2, T Walsh, D Lyng, R Power, M Fennelly, TJ Reid, J Tyrrell 0-1 each. Tipperary: E Kelly 0-13 (7f, 3 '65s), L Corbett 0-4, S Callanan 0-3, N McGrath 0-2, S McGrath 0-1.

Kilkenny -- PJ Ryan; M Kavanagh, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, J Tennyson; D Lyng, M Rice; E Brennan, E Larkin, R Power; R Hogan, H Shefflin, A Fogarty. Subs: TJ Reid for Fogarty (50), M Fennelly for Lyng (52), M Comerford for R Hogan (55).

Tipperary -- B Cummins; P Stapleton, P Maher, P Curran; D Fanning, C O'Mahony, B Maher; J Woodlock, S McGrath; N McGrath, J O'Brien, S Callanan; P Kerwick, E Kelly, L Corbett. Subs: B Dunne for O'Brien (47), W Ryan for Kerwick (66), M Webster for Woodlock (69).

Ref -- D Kirwan (Cork).

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