The wheels of a wagon that had rolled successfully since May of last year, winning 9 successive championship matches and collecting the All-Ireland and Munster Championships along the way, slipped off at Croke Park on Sunday.
Tipp, the holders, had to hand back the McCarthy Cup when they were outmuscled, outmanoeuvered and ultimately outfought by a remarkable Kilkenny team in what was possibly the first All-Ireland Final (or part of it) played under lights.
There could be no complaints about the outcome from the ranks of blue and gold in the attendance of 81,214. The better team won and this game was effectively decided in the opening quarter of an hour. Tipp were flat and anxious in the opening stages, while Kilkenny started with intensity and aggression. They gave all the big hits in those opening skirmishes and reeled off a string of points without a response.
By the time they came up for air Tipp found themselves 5 points in arrears after a quarter of an hour and playing a game of catch-up that they never mastered. Kilkenny were ahead from the first whistle to the last, just like Tipp led from the front last year, and in those opening 15 minutes they set the template for a performance that won the county its 33rd All-Ireland title.
This wasn’t the free-flowing spectacle witnessed when the same teams met in the previous two finals. Call it hunger, appetite or maybe even preparation but neither did Tipp have the same drive, thrust or conviction that they displayed in the ‘09 decider or last year’s final. They had little spark or fire and their body language didn’t speak too convincingly of a team that desperately wanted to win.
The contrast from last year was particularly startling. Tipp plundered 3 fewer goals than they did 12 months previously. Lar Corbett, last year’s hat-trick hero, failed to score. On Sunday the team scored 1-7 from play, compared to 4-9 last year.
They were undone by a flat-footed, slack tempo approach and their lack of finishing prowess added to their woes, as they were smothered by a black and amber blanket. Kilkenny’s attitude was summed up by that daring block by Colin Fennelly on Lar Corbett in the first half, which left the Kilkenny man with blood streaming from his head. If there was any doubt about it beforehand then this was conclusive proof that this was a different Kilkenny to the version that Tipp beat 12 months previously; the challengers had their homework done to perfection.
Tipp had to wait 16 minutes for their first score, which came from Noel McGrath, and they managed just 2 points from play in the opening half.
Mentally, Tipp weren’t tuned to the level they should have been. Someone once said that 99% concentration equals 100% failure, and so it was proved when Kilkenny struck for their opening goal 5 minutes before half time. The defence momentarily switched off when the ball was ferried across the pitch via Henry Shefflin and Richie Hogan from a quickly-taken sideline and Michael Fennelly raced clear to bury a low shot in the net.
Tipp responded with a Gearoid Ryan point before Michael Rice scored at the other end. Tipp had a great glimpse of a goal when Bonnar Maher raced through on the stroke of half time, only to be felled by Noel Hickey’s cynical trip. A converted free from Eoin Kelly hardly amounted to adequate compensation.
Kilkenny held a 5-points lead at the break, 1-8 to 0-6, which was considerable in such a tight, low-scoring affair.
Tipp re-shaped their team at the interval, introducing Benny Dunne and Pa Bourke in place of Shane McGrath and Seamus Callanan, both of whom had been struggling. By that stage Brendan Maher had been thrown into the fray in place of John O’Keeffe.
Benny Dunne scored a point 3 minutes after the re-start and Eoin Kelly was on target from a ‘65 a few minutes later. But they weren’t making the necessary inroads into the sizable Kilkenny lead, with Henry Shefflin (from a free and from play), Colin Fennelly and Richie Power keeping their side ticking over with points.
Conor O’Mahony scored from play and Eoin Kelly did likewise from a free before Kilkenny stretched their advantage to 8 points 14 minutes into the second half. 32 year-old Eddie Brennan teed up the score with his surge through the heart of the defence and Richie Hogan controlled the ball before he let fly with a thunderbolt into the top corner of the net.
That gave Kilkenny a big cushion but in the face of such adversity Tipperary kept their challenge bubbling. Brendan Maher was coming more and more into the picture in a defence in which Padraic Maher, Paul Curran and Michael Cahill were also defiant.
Gearoid Ryan was doing his utmost at midfield while in attack Bonnar Maher and Noel McGrath seemed the most likely to pull the game out of the fire, with John O’Brien also winning an amount of ball.
Noel McGrath converted a sideline before Pa Bourke’s goal, set up by Lar Corbett’s brilliant flick and driven low through Kilkenny ‘keeper David Herity, threw Tipp a lifeline. The score was greeted by an almost guttural roar and soon Croke Park reverberated to the cry of “Tipp, Tipp..” Now there were only 4 points between the sides, and with 15 minutes remaining the game was delicately poised between sporting heaven and hell.
After Colin Fennelly scored for Kilkenny, Noel McGrath from play and an Eoin Kelly free left just a goal in the difference with 6 minutes of normal time remaining, but Tipp were unable to push on to snatch a highly unlikely victory or even a draw. The next crucial score came from Henry Shefflin’s free, awarded when David Young hauled Michael Fennelly to the ground.
Another Eoin Kelly free again reduced the gap to 3 points but, requiring greater penetration and a cutting edge, they never came close to the goal they needed to retrieve the situation.
A free was awarded against Benny Dunne when he was trying to burrow his way through the massed Kilkenny defence and Pa Bourke was hooked when in a good position as he accepted Eoin Kelly’s pass. Gearoid Ryan struck an additional time point to again cut the gap to a goal but by then Tipp’s challenge had been holed beneath the waterline, Eoin Larkin adding a celebratory late point for Kilkenny.
As a team Tipp never functioned to the standard needed to win an All-Ireland, yet by the final whistle they were still only four points adrift.
It was Kilkenny’s day, and for a team and a manager with so much mileage and long service to come back from last year’s devastation must rank up there alongside any of their greatest All-Ireland triumphs. The individual highlights were supplied by JJ Delaney, Michael Fennelly, Richie Power, Jackie Tyrrell, Noel Hickey, Richie Hogan, Henry Shefflin, Paul Murphy and Tommy Walsh, even allowing for the latter’s reckless swing that connected with referee Brian Gavin’s nose and required lengthy treatment from Tipperary doctor Peter Murchan.
It was as a team, though, that this gifted group really shone, as they claimed their county’s eighth title in 12 years.
Brendan Cummins, Paddy Stapleton, Paul Curran, Michael Cahill, John O’Keeffe, Conor O’Mahony (0-1), Padraic Maher, Gearoid Ryan (0-2), Shane McGrath, Seamus Callanan, Noel McGrath (0-3 including 1 sideline), Patrick Maher, Eoin Kelly (0-8 including 7 frees and 1 ‘65), John O’Brien (0-1) and Lar Corbett.
Substitutes – Brendan Maher for John O’Keeffe (29 minutes), Benny Dunne (0-1) for Shane McGrath (half time), Pa Bourke (1-0) for Seamus Callanan (half time), David Young for Conor O’Mahony (57 minutes) and John O’Neill for John O’Brien (66 minutes).
David Herity, Jackie Tyrrell, Noel Hickey, Paul Murphy, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan (captain), JJ Delaney, Michael Fennelly (1-0), Michael Rice (0-1), Eddie Brennan (0-1), Richie Power (0-2), Henry Shefflin (0-7 including 5 frees), Colin Fennelly (0-2), Eoin Larkin (0-2) and Richie Hogan (1-1).
Substitutes – TJ Reid (0-1) for Eddie Brennan (59 minutes) and John Mulhall for Richie Hogan (64 minutes).
Referee – Brian Gavin (Offaly).