TIPPERARY 2-18; GALWAY 2-15
TIPPERARY 2-18; GALWAY 2-15 WHEN the hard questions were put, the experience of having sat longer and tougher exams than Galway over the past three seasons stood to Tipperary, who delivered an A plus performance to win the Guinness All-Ireland hurling title for the 25th time at Croke Park yesterday.
As Galway pore over their answer sheets looking for where they might have picked up extra marks, they will concentrate on a relatively slow start, some poor first-half shooting, plus an inability to raise momentum levels sufficiently in the closing stages.
They will also look at a testy relationship with luck Fergal Healy twice hit the post in the second-half only to see the ball rebound to a Tipperary defender while the performance of referee Pat O'Connor will also be discussed critically.
Joe Rabbitte, in particular, can harbour some justifiable complaints about the referee's interpretation of his attacking style. Rabbitte's path to goal was repeatedly blocked by a massed Tipperary defence, but, more often than not, the call went against the forward, even on occasions when he looked to be more sinned against than sinning.
Still, in the piercing light of reality, Tipperary's overall superiority has to be acknowledged by even the most partisan Galway fans. Tipp led from trap to line by margins which ranged from six points to one, but, in the end, settled at three a fair reflection of the day.
Apart from a spell just before half-time and a burst between the 49th and 60th minutes, Galway were kept at a safe distance and could never find the surge which electrocuted Kilkenny's All-Ireland ambitions in their semi-final.
Then, Galway were driven by so many obsessives that Kilkenny could never quite figure out where the next bolt was coming from, but Tipperary were an altogether different proposition. They set targets for Galway to aim at and protected them with the spirited defiance one would expect from a county which hadn't won the All-Ireland for 10 years. Galway's need was greater given their time without the title, but they lacked the vital craft and cunning Tipperary picked up through the fields of Munster over the past few seasons. It manifested itself in several ways, not least in the influential contributions of experienced hands like Thomas Dunne, Declan Ryan and Brendan Cummins.
All three needed big performances and didn't disappoint. Dunne hit the hectic pace of the game very quickly, firing over the opening point after three minutes. It was the launch pad for a superb performance which mixed energy, effort and touch with a smartness which took him to the point of action sooner than others. He decorated it with consistent accuracy, shooting five points (three from 65s).
Declan Ryan started slowly, but dug his way bravely into the game, and while his shooting wasn't up to its usual standard, he won lots of crucial possession in the second-half and used it well. Cummins had no chance with either Galway goal, but was sound on everything else, including a smashing smother save from Kevin Broderick in the 64th minute. His puck-outs and frees were dangerous missiles which seriously threatened Galway's defence.
With Mark O'Leary taking his personal tally from play to 2-1, Eoin Kelly reliable on frees,and Lar Corbett choosing the biggest day of all to unveil his best championship performance, Tipperary really did have a whole lot going for them.
It required massive resistance by Galway to turn this into a hugely entertaining final, and, to their credit, they soared to meet the challenge, albeit not as high as Tipperary. However, both sides deserve plaudits for producing such a high quality game on a truly awful pitch.
It's a long time since the surface has been so bad. Instead of bouncing on top of a dry sod, players dug into surface, digging up chunks of earth with boots and hurls. Apart from sapping their energy, it also led to frustration as they tried to move the ball across the heavy, clinging sod.
For a pitch which was in great shape some weeks ago, it's difficult to understand why it was so bad for the greatest day of the hurling season. After all, it wasn't as if there had been a deluge over the previous few days.
If Dunne, O'Leary, Cummins and Ryan stood as four important reference points for Tipperary, Galway had their own heroic figures too, not least Liam Hodgins, Kevin Broderick and Fergal Healy. Hodgins took his captain's role quite literally, standing as an example to his colleagues, while Broderick scored five great points on the run and was unlucky not to have added a goal.
Healy turned in a fine performance too, scoring 1-2 and was unlucky with the two shots which hit the posts. His goal, scored in the 60th minute, cut the margin to a single point and seemed to have set Galway up for a winning finish but, just as they had done all day, Tipperary responded to the threat with a burst of points.
They out-scored Galway by 0-5 to 0-3 in the closing nine minutes, underlining their ability to respond to severe pressure in a calm, intelligent manner. It was the third and most significant time they had done that.
A goal from Mark O'Leary in the 22nd minute helped Tipperary on their way to a 1-6 to 0-3 lead after 23 minutes, but Galway responded quickly with Eugene Cloonan whipping home a goal after Cummins had made an excellent block from an Alan Kerins shot.
It should have been a settling score for Galway, who were playing against the wind, but Tipperary retained their composure and scored three points in two minutes to re-open a six point advantage. Galway rallied with equal conviction and shot four unanswered points before the break to trail by 1-9 to 1-7 at the interval.
It was an encouraging phase for Galway, but it needed to be built on early in the second-half. Instead it was Tipperary who took the vital initiative, with O'Leary chasing down a ball played into the Galway square and poking it to the net in the 39th minute.
It stabilised Tipperary for the inevitable battle against the wind, and their high work ethic kept them five to six points clear up to the 59th minute when Broderick pointed to cut the deficit to four. Healy's goal a minute later, scored after an opportunist run along the Tipperary endline, relaunched Galway's ambitions, but they lacked the experienced edge required to complete the recovery.
Tipperary always seemed to have that little extra in the tank, while their calmness under pressure rescued them on several occasions. They were men on a mission and, having travelled a longer road than Galway, had an intuitive survival instinct when it came to negotiating the more awkward bends. Galway scored more than Clare, Limerick or Wexford against Tipperary, but their giveaway rate was also the highest. Ultimately, that undermined them, although the real faultline lay in their experience deficit. Yesterday's game will have corrected that problem, but as they look back up the mountain this morning, next year's All-Ireland final summit is shrouded in fog.
But Tipperary have recovered from severe personal traumas over the last few seasons to finally reach the top, a position they fully deserve after a season in which they not only made themselves hard to beat, but also learned how to win in tight situations.
SCORERS Tipperary: E Kelly 0-7 (6f), M O'Leary 2-1, T Dunne 0-5 (3 65s), L Corbett 0-2, D Ryan, P O'Brien, J Carroll 0-1 each. Galway: E Cloonan 1-5 (4fs), F Healy 1-2, K Broderick 0-5, M Kerins 0-2, J Rabbitte 0-1.
TIPPERARY B Cummins; T Costello, P Maher, P Ormonde; E Corcoran, D Kennedy, P Kelly; T Dunne, E Enright; M O'Leary, J Carroll, P Corbett; E Kelly, D Ryan, E O'Neill. Substitutes: D Fahy for Costello (56), P O'Brien for O'Neill (58), M Ryan for P Kelly (67), C Gleeson for Kennedy (68).
GALWAY M Crimmins; G Kennedy, M Healy, O Canning; D Hardiman, L Hodgins, C Moore; D Tierney, R Murray; J Rabbitte, M Kerins, K Broderick; A Kerins, E Cloonan, F Healy. Subs: B Higgins for Hardiman (48), O Fahy for Rabbitte (65).
REF P O'Connor (Limerick).
BOOKED Galway: E Cloonan (48). Tipperary: None.