Kilkenny's All Ireland Revenge: Sweetest of them all
Having surrendered their title to Tipperary last year, Kilkenny then lost by 12 points to Dublin in a league final and many were ready to write their hurling obituary. Brian Cody’s men had other ideas
ATTEMPTING to prioritise an All-Ireland win from a cast of 33 may appear futile but in reality it's not.
Kilkenny supporters will no doubt have different views as to which All-Ireland hurling success gave them the most satisfaction over the years but it's a safe bet that many of them will opt for last September's win over Tipperary. Even Brian Cody, who has won eight All-Ireland titles as a manager and four as a player, acknowledged that the 2011 success was indeed something special.
It's a rare experience -- certainly in modern times -- for Kilkenny to go into an All-Ireland final as outsiders but they were largely unloved in the betting market against a Tipp team which appeared to have built impressively on their 2010 success. Tipperary's march to the All-Ireland final was constructed off a sweeping dominance of Munster, followed by a grinding effort which wore down Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final.
It looked to be the perfect way to arrive in the final as they had been tested to the limit by Dublin after easily out-gunning Cork, Clare and Waterford in Munster.
The general view was that, having beaten Kilkenny a year earlier, Tipperary would reinforce their status as the top hurling team in the country. It wasn't that the public were dismissing Kilkenny but there was a feeling that, after raising standards to new heights throughout the last decade, they had inspired their neighbours to climb even higher.
It certainly looked that way in the Munster championship, where Tipperary flew in a different orbit to their rivals. Kilkenny hadn't been troubled very much in Leinster either and were quite efficient against Waterford in the All-Ireland semi-final, but there was still a doubt over whether they could revisit the peaks of 2006-09.
Their All-Ireland final defeat by Tipp in 2010 raised legitimate questions as to whether an era had ended for Kilkenny. After all, every empire has to fall at some point, so it wasn't unreasonable to question if they were about to head into a period of transition.
The Allianz League final defeat by Dublin only increased the doubts. Granted, Kilkenny weren't anywhere near full-strength and had Eoin Larkin sent off after 25 minutes but it was still most unusual for any black-and-amber team to score a mere 1-2 in the first half, followed by 0-5 in the second half, all of which came from frees.
This wasn't normal Kilkenny service so, inevitably, questions were raised about their well-being going into the championship. The squad and management were asking them too but were convinced they had the answers.
Central to their confidence that they would be a different proposition in the championship was the view that they were judged unfairly ever since the previous year's All-Ireland semi-final. The injuries to Henry Shefflin and Brian Hogan had proved hugely significant, not least in the 2010 All-Ireland final.
Hogan was unable to make any contribution while Shefflin hobbled off in the first half with a recurrence of a knee injury. Shefflin's departure was doubly significant as it not only robbed Kilkenny of their main attacking strategist, it also increased Tipperary's self-belief as they realised the challenge was now less daunting.
Hogan's absence was also a major factor in allowing Tipperary to generate the level of dominance which saw them hit Kilkenny for four goals. Tipperary found it surprisingly easy to advance down the centre, an approach which would have been far more difficult if Hogan had been on sentry duty.
With Shefflin and Hogan back to their efficient best this year, Kilkenny were always going to be a different proposition. For all that, there was still a doubt over whether they could match Tipp on All-Ireland final day.
Enter personal pride and passion. Having their five-in-a-row dreams shattered by Tipperary a year earlier was bad enough but there was now a risk that their neighbours would double the angst by retaining the All-Ireland for the first time since 1965. Had they done so, Kilkenny would be left with no choice but to embark on a radical overhaul of the squad.
Many of the Kilkenny team were playing for their very survival as inter-county hurlers, a challenge which was always guaranteed to draw the best from them. As for Cody, he was facing his biggest test since 2006, the year in which he masterminded Kilkenny's overthrow of treble-seekers Cork after losing a semi-final and final the previous two years.
There were several similarities in the manner in which Kilkenny performed in the 2006 All-Ireland final and this year. Five years ago, they smothered Cork into submission in one of the most relentlessly driven performances ever witnessed in a final. It was the template off which Kilkenny again worked last September.
They made their intentions clear from the start, driving at Tipperary in powerful waves and building up a five-point lead in the first 15 minutes. It was the first time since the 2009 All-Ireland final that Tipperary experienced such heat and while they withstood it as best they could, they were unable to cool things down to the level they required to impose their own game on Kilkenny.
Yet, for all Kilkenny's dominance, they were only a goal ahead after 64 minutes, having been eight points clear at the three-quarter mark. It was at that stage that their real courage asserted itself. Had Kilkenny been infected with even the slightest doubts, Tipperary would have exploited it.
Tipperary applied as much pressure as they could muster but Kilkenny were so defiant that it looked as if they would remain in front even if the game went on for another hour.
It was a victory for defiance, structure and consistency, underpinned by a stubbornness which Kilkenny do so well when the pressure is at its most intense. The manner in which the defence cut down the space available to the Tipp attack was remarkable. Further afield, the effort and work rate of the midfielders, typified by Michael Fennelly's driving runs, and the attack presented Tipperary with a new set of problems which they couldn't quite figure out on the day.
Now, the big question is whether Tipperary will work through those quandaries and come up with solutions for next year. As for Kilkenny, they are back on top, having proved that their ambitions are as high as at any time during the four-in-a-row run.
That's ominous for the rest of the hurling world. Mind you, there are those who claim Kilkenny invested so much in regaining the top spot this year that they may not be able to repeat the same level of effort and intensity next season. Frankly, that theory runs short on evidence if previous years are anything to go by.
So as Kilkenny end the year back in familiar surroundings as All-Ireland champions there's a sense of fulfilment in the county. However, there's the nagging feeling that if Shefflin and Hogan had been available for the 2010 All-Ireland final, Kilkenny might now be celebrating the six-in-a-row.
Based on the pair's performances last summer, there's every chance that would indeed have been the case. Still, five out of six is an impressive haul for a squad which has proven beyond doubt to be the best in championship history.