Friday 27 April 2018

Willingness to pay the price sets this Cats team apart

Kilkenny hunted down Tipp and got their just reward for hard graft, says Jamesie O'ConnorIt's hard to believe that 34 and a half minutes into last Sunday's All-Ireland final, having hurled Tipperary off the field, Kilkenny were still only three points clear. Sitting down to watch the match again last the week, I was asking myself how did this happen, and what would I see differently second time round.

With the Tipperary attack struggling to cope with the physicality, aggression and intensity of a belligerent Kilkenny defence, the Cats were ticking a lot of the boxes needed for them to win. The match-ups had been right -- Jackie Tyrrell on Lar Corbett, Noel Hickey on Eoin Kelly, Brian Hogan on Noel McGrath and JJ Delaney on Seamus Callanan -- to such an extent that, incredibly, Tipp had failed to score, or even look like scoring, in the opening quarter.

In fact, McGrath's 16th-minute opener apart, their most artistic and creative forwards hadn't registered a shot on target from play as half-time approached.

Elsewhere, Michael Fennelly's thunderous hit on Shane McGrath in the 13th minute, that not only buckled the Tipp man, but resulted in yet another turnover and Kilkenny score, along with Michael Rice's growing influence, meant Kilkenny had established a clear foothold in midfield. To compound matters, Tipperary made the mistake of allowing the inexperienced John O'Keeffe the task of picking up Henry Shefflin.

Knowing Kilkenny were likely to expose any perceived weaknesses, why last year's young hurler of the year, and the man who had done such a good job on Shefflin in the 2009 final, Brendan Maher, was left on the bench, is likely to have been the biggest talking point in the county this past week. Declan Ryan could also have deployed Pádraic Maher on Shefflin.

Struggling badly with the pace and intensity of the proceedings, and the fact that Tommy Walsh in particular was looking to find the Ballyhale man at every opportunity, the Tipp youngster was finally replaced by Maher after 30 minutes. With Shefflin's shooting uncharacteristically wayward, the price exacted for that decision, wasn't anything like as severe as it might have been and so the scoreboard remained a poor reflection of Kilkenny's superiority.

And then, just when Tipp looked like getting to half-time in a great position considering how poorly they'd played, the dam breaks.

Here's how that sequence played out. Shefflin goes to take a line ball 35 metres out from the Tipp goal, on the Cusack Stand side. His marker, the newly introduced Brendan Maher, drops back in front of Brendan Cummins positioning himself where he anticipates the ball is likely to land. Eoin Larkin, however, makes a run offering Shefflin the opportunity to play a quick one-two. Seeing the danger, Paddy Stapleton leaves Richie Hogan to close Shefflin down. Spotting Hogan free in space, rather than attempting the point, Shefflin plays a sublime pass. At this stage Maher is sprinting out to pick up Hogan, but spotting Fennelly's beautifully timed run, he pops a perfect pass into the onrushing midfielder's hand and from 14 yards out, the finish is flawless. In rugby parlance, Fennelly ran a great line. The goal dealt a hammer blow to Tipp's chances, as well as giving a huge psychological lift to the Cats heading into half-time.

A five-point cushion at the break was the minimum Kilkenny deserved, and the writing was probably on the wall for Tipp. Against normal opposition, with the firepower and scoring prowess they have in the team, a five-point half-time deficit wouldn't be a massive concern. Against this Kilkenny side that wasn't the case. Whatever else, with so many players struggling and individual battles being lost all over the field, they couldn't realistically allow that lead to grow any further.

Fourteen minutes into the second half, it did. Again, it's worth dissecting how the game's other key moment unfolded. With the margin still five, Tommy Walsh retrieves a ball deep inside his own full-back line. Rather than launch it out of defence as he might have in previous years, he picks out Michael Rice on the 21-yard line. Rice, who has drifted back, as he did all day, to offer an easy relieving outlet to his defence, has the option of a 30-yard pass to Eddie Brennan who had made a run in front of his marker. Instead, he goes longer up the line to Colin Fennelly.

Seeing the ball go over his head, Brennan turns, and is running back up the field. Spotting him in space Fennelly delivers a perfect handpass and Brennan doesn't have to break stride to take it. With an easy point on, but a sea of open ground in front of him, he drives forward. Instinct takes over; the goal is on. Again Paddy Stapleton, marking Richie Hogan, has a decision to make. The cover is getting back, but will it make it in time? I'm speaking as a forward here, but with Brennan's track record, he probably has to take the step out to meet him. Eddie duly slips the pass to Hogan, and while Stapleton has the chance to get a flick on the ball as Hogan is poised to strike, agonisingly he's a fraction too early. The ball duly ends up in the top corner and the lead is now eight.

There may have been better individual goals scored in Croke Park but there can't have been too many greater team goals. From one end of the field to the other, players took the right option, the selfless option, did the right thing with the ball and executed it to perfection. Yet, to Tipp's great credit, a quarter of an hour later, with five minutes left on the clock, the deficit was again back to three. At that stage, the next score was vital. That it went to Kilkenny, the result of a needless free conceded by a fresh pair of legs, was the final nail in the Tipp coffin.

Tipp can have no complaints. They failed to match Kilkenny's hunger, desire, aggression and sheer physicality, something they knew they had to do to win. The hunters 12 months ago, had now become the hunted, and by God, did Kilkenny hunt. The work-rate of their forwards in particular was phenomenal and the pressure the Tipp backs were put under inevitably led to turnovers and scores. It also had an effect on the quality of ball going into the Tipp forwards, which given how tightly Kilkenny were marking, made life doubly difficult up front.

To be as close as they were, and still in it with minutes left, was a testament to their character. But there will also be regrets. The subtle change in their style of play up front, with the longer more direct ball rather than the crisp medium range passing of the old regime, was much easier for an experienced defence to counteract. Against weaker opposition in Munster it paid dividends, but was far less likely to open up a defence as good as Kilkenny's, especially with the motivation of last year driving them on.

Final words on the champions. Vince Lombardi used to post a sign above his players' lockers that said 'anything is ours . . . provided we are willing to pay the price'. Their willingness to pay and keep on paying the price is what sets this Kilkenny team apart. It's no surprise then that the reward last Sunday evening will never have felt sweeter.

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