Powerhouse Fennelly fires Cats to glory
Kilkenny 2-17 Tipperary 0-20
THE seasons change but Kilkenny remain the same.
While other counties talk of how much they got out of the league without actually winning it, Kilkenny are only happy when the spring trophy is secured and yet another marker driven deep into the terrain for the bigger campaigns ahead.
Kilkenny are never short of incentive, constantly reinventing themselves in order to keep ahead of the pursuing pack which, in latter years, has been led mainly by Tipperary.
With this season's league final being played in Nowlan Park for the first time in 47 years, Kilkenny's obsession for success was even more pronounced and it needed to be as Tipperary coursed them all the way to the finish line of what was an excellent contest.
A stadium stretching past 90pc capacity generated a special atmosphere and the game certainly lived up to expectations, powering through the intensity gears early on before settling at a very high tempo which never sagged.
Some excellent bouts of play were decorated with great points, many from long distances, as both sides found space in the middle third of the pitch.
Tipperary matched Kilkenny on that front but not in the close-in action, specifically for the rampaging runs of Michael Fennelly, which yielded two first-half goals.
Named at midfield but starting at centre-forward in a switch with Michael Rice, Fennelly used old-fashioned raiding techniques to create his first goal opening in the third minute, ramming through the centre of the Tipperary defence like a JCB powered by a Formula 1 engine before firing past Darren Gleeson.
His second goal, scored in the 21st minute, resulted from his accurate reading of how play was developing. It took him to the left of the Tipperary goal and when he won possession, he had the confidence and the accuracy to beat Gleeson with an angled shot.
It put Kilkenny 2-3 to 0-5 clear, which must have been deeply disappointing for Tipperary, who thought they had all but fully recovered after conceding 1-2 in the first three minutes. Besides, they were playing with the wind.
Midfielder Brendan Maher played a big part in the fightback, firing over some excellent long-range points.
Tipperary opted to deploy Noel McGrath around midfield, and while he hurled quite a lot of ball and also scored three points, his positioning reduced the goal-scoring threat.
With the exception of one chance which Patrick 'Bonner' Maher miscued in the 29th minute, Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy was never put under any pressure, whereas Gleeson had a busier existence at the other end.
Tipperary drew level just past the half-hour mark but Lester Ryan and Fennelly pointed before the break to leave Kilkenny leading by 2-7 to 0-11 at the interval.
Tipperary took such a long half-time break that referee Barry Kelly eventually lost patience and headed to the dressing-room to hunt them back into action, which started with Eoin Larkin pointing a '65'.
It was tense and tight from there on and reached what looked a significant moment in the 44th minute when a bust-up, which began with an off-the-ball clash between Lar Corbett and JJ Delaney in front of the Tipperary goal, was joined by several others.
When all had calmed down, Shane Bourke was booked and, following consultation with his umpires, referee, Kelly dismissed Corbett and Delaney.
The loss looked far more damaging for Kilkenny as Delaney was hurling extremely well, while the game had passed Corbett by. Inside four minutes, Tipperary were level through Maher's fourth point and a free by Callanan, presenting Kilkenny, who had lost the previous 45 minutes by 0-16 to 1-8, with a real test.
As so often in the past, their response was determined, measured and effective. They scored three unanswered points, which took them into the final 15 minutes in a position of real strength.
Tipperary cut the lead to two points on a few occasions but probably needed a goal to change the overall balance and they never came remotely close to getting it.
Kilkenny held solid across every line and finished the day with a stoppage-time point from Rice to secure a victory that earned them their third back-to-back league triumph in a decade.
They did it without Henry Shefflin, Richie Power, TJ Reid and Walter Walsh, all of whom are expected to be fit for the championship, underlining the sheer depth of their panel.
One of their big success stories in the league has been midfielder Lester Ryan, who built on his earlier good form with another fine display yesterday. It included three points from open play to take his league haul to 1-10, making him Kilkenny's joint fourth highest scorer.
He is a huge addition to Kilkenny, who are spoilt for choice around midfield. Man of the match Michael Fennelly, Cillian Buckley and Rice also did well in the middle third, while Colin Fennelly had some good moments closer to the Tipperary goal.
Richie Hogan found it much harder to get possession than he did against Galway, while Larkin's best contributions were from placed balls.
Despite the defeat, Tipperary will be pleased with many aspects of their performance, not least the dogged manner in which they forced their way back into the game after a leaky opening.
Apart from allowing Michael Fennelly to unhinge them twice in the first half, they were solid defensively, while Maher had an excellent game at midfield, an area where McGrath also did most of his best work.
However, there has to be some concerns about the attack. Of Tipperary's total, Maher and McGrath scored 0-7 between them from the midfield zone. Goalkeeper Gleeson and centre-back Padraic Maher got a point each, while a further 0-9 came from placed balls and subs.
It means that Eoin Kelly, 'Bonner' Maher, Callanan, Corbett and Bourke managed only two points between them from open play, a disappointingly low return, even allowing for the tenacity of the Kilkenny defence.
Four Tipperary forwards were replaced as Eamon O'Shea emptied his bench in an effort to find the code to unlock the Kilkenny defence. It all points to a whole range of important decisions to be made ahead of the championship, which should spice up Tipperary training sessions in the coming weeks.
Kilkenny made only one switch (Matthew Ruth for Aidan Fogarty) late on but with so much attacking talent returning for the championship, their sessions will be pretty interesting too as players challenge for places ahead of the big summer adventure.
Scorers – Kilkenny: M Fennelly 2-3, E Larkin 0-6 (5fs, 1'65'), L Ryan 0-3, C Fennelly, K Joyce, R Hogan, C Buckley, M Rice 0-1 each. Tipperary: E Kelly 0-5 (3fs, 1'65'), B Maher 0-4, N McGrath 0-3, S Callanan (2fs), P Bourke (2fs) 0-2 each, D Gleeson (f), S Bourke, J O'Brien, Padraic Maher 0-1 each.
Kilkenny – E Murphy 7; P Murphy 8, JJ Delaney 7, J Tyrrell 7; T Walsh 7, B Hogan 8, K Joyce 8; L Ryan 8, M Rice 7; C Buckley 7, M Fennelly 9, E Larkin 6; C Fennelly 7, R Hogan 6, A Fogarty 5. Subs: M Ruth 6 for Fogarty (62).
Tipperary – D Gleeson 7; C O'Brien 7, P Curran 7, M Cahill 7; C O'Mahony 8, Padraic Maher 7, K Bergin 7; B Maher 9, S McGrath 6; S Callanan 5, L Corbett 4, Patrick Maher 6; S Bourke 5, E Kelly 6, N McGrath 8. Subs: J O'Dwyer 7 for Kelly (48), J Forde 6 for Callanan (57), J O'Brien 7 for S McGrath (57), P Bourke 6 for S Bourke (61), J Woodlock for Patrick Maher (67).
Ref - B Kelly (Westmeath).