The old order remains as Tipperary again play second fiddle to Kilkenny

Kilkenny 2-17 Tipperary 0-20

Report – Eamonn Wynne Photos – John Kelly

A Tipperary team outmuscled, outfought and outmanoeuvred by Kilkenny – where have we seen that before? Sunday’s National League Final conformed to script, with the League and All-Ireland champions still ruling the hurling landscape and extending the dominance they’ve exerted over their nearest rivals in recent tussles.

As well as lacking the sort of aggression required to unsettle such formidable opponents, that familiar failure of not winning enough possession in attack (particularly in the half-forward line) returned to haunt the challengers. Tipp were also hamstrung by their minimal goal threat all afternoon, and against a team with such a love for the green flag it was another deficiency that undermined their challenge and contributed significantly to their undoing.

The match may have clearly illustrated that Tipp are by no means the finished article but for all that sufficient evidence has been displayed throughout the League campaign, including last Sunday, to suggest that they’re capable of mounting a more serious and sustained championship challenge than last year.

Kilkenny, meanwhile, show no signs of decline and this latest success, witnessed by an attendance of 21,447 shoehorned into an atmospheric Nowlan Park, provided the perfect tonic for manager Brian Cody as he recovers from heart surgery.

A point from Lester Ryan after just 10 seconds set the tone for a blistering Kilkenny start that saw them ahead by 5 points after 3 minutes, thanks principally to Michael Fennelly’s first goal. At one stage early in the first half the scoreboard incorrectly gave Kilkenny an extra point, as if they needed any more encouragement.

After that frantic early blitzkrieg Tipp were left to hang grimly onto their coat tails, with Kilkenny in front at the break by 2-7 to 0-11. Yet a point from the outstanding Brendan Maher ensured the sides were level with 20 minutes remaining.

Any encouragement they may have derived from that equalising score was short-lived. Kilkenny’s response was emphatic with points flowing from Richie Hogan, Eoin Larkin’s free and Cillian Buckley. This was at a stage of the game where, despite playing against the fresh breeze, Tipp were enjoying ample possession but giving it away again with alarming regularity.

Substitute John O’Brien made an immediate impact with a point 12 minutes from the finish and the two-points margin remained after Padraic Maher, from distance, responded to Eoin Larkin’s free. They traded further scores through converted frees from Eoin Larkin and Pa Bourke. As the clock ticked down the ding-dong pattern was maintained with scores from Lester Ryan and another Pa Bourke free.

However after Darren Gleeson had saved at his near post from Richie Hogan, Kilkenny made the game safe with Michael Rice’s additional time point, a score greeted with a huge cheer by Kilkenny’s fiercely partisan following. Brendan Maher sent a rising shot wide in the second and final minute of injury time but by then Tipp had already run out of ideas.

That finale had been played out with each team reduced to 14 men after Lar Corbett and J.J. Delaney were sent off 10 minutes into the second half after they scuffled on the floor following an off-the ball incident. Kilkenny goalie Eoin Murphy was extremely fortunate to escape any censure for his needless role in the shenanigans.

There was further woe for Corbett after the game when he was taken to hospital with fractured ribs. Whatever about the merits of that double dismissal, Barry Kelly’s handling of the game was interesting, considering that Kilkenny were penalised for considerably more fouls than normal. Has that set the refereeing template for the championship?

Tipp were left floundering in Kilkenny’s vapour trail from the start. After Lar Corbett and Padraic Maher had lost out in exchanges with their opponents in an area of the pitch there appeared no obvious danger, Michael Fennelly was allowed to advance practically unchallenged on goal and even after he momentarily dropped the ball he billowed the net from close range.

The goal put Kilkenny in front by 1-2 to no score after 3 minutes and Tipp supporters feared the worst as the final seemed set to follow an all-too-familiar pattern. Considering who and where they were playing, it was the last thing that should have happened the challengers.

However they soon regained their footing after that disastrous opening. Eoin Kelly opened their account from a free before a beautiful interception and point from Brendan Maher saw them take closer order.

Man of the match Michael Fennelly had a point before Brendan Maher, who was quickly emerging as a real leader, won possession from the puckout to score a smart point. Another of Tipp’s leading lights, Noel McGrath, had their fourth point after a sumptuous flick from Lar Corbett. But that pass amounted to Corbett’s only real contribution of note on a day when he experienced more disappointment and frustration against Kilkenny.

Debutant Kieran Bergin (at wing back), corner back Paul Curran and centre back Padraic Maher were also stepping up manfully to the challenge, with Conor O’Brien playing a sound supporting role, although that was offset by how little headway the forwards were making against a Kilkenny defence in which Paul Murphy, Brian Hogan and Kieran Joyce excelled.

Seamus Callanan reduced the gap to just a point with a 20 minute free (1-3 to 0-5) but, as happened in the second half, Kilkenny wasted no time re-asserting their authority. Michael Fennelly, who had a superb game, struck again with venom a minute later when he squeezed a shot inside the post to stretch the lead to 4 points.

Tipp were competing well but both goals had conspired against their challenge, preventing it from gaining real momentum. Still they plugged gamely on. Brendan Maher scored with another long-range effort from just inside his own half and after the same player had won possession Eoin Kelly landed a delightful effort between the posts from the left wing.

With 7 minutes remaining in the first half Tipp had a chance of a goal that would have put them ahead for the only time. Noel McGrath and Seamus Callanan were involved in the build-up but Bonnar Maher failed to trouble goalie Eoin Murphy with either of his two attempts, emphasising once again that finishing isn’t the strongest feature of his game.

Michael Fennelly had the next score, a point, before Tipp levelled the scores three minutes before half-time thanks to points from Eoin Kelly’s free, a ’65 from the same player and Noel McGrath from play after a great block by Conor O’Brien.

Yet the greater drive and thrust was with Kilkenny all afternoon and they retired for the break with their advantage restored (at 2 points), courtesy of points from Colin Fennelly, Lester Ryan and Michael Fennelly, with Darren Gleeson earlier converting a long-range free with one of his massive deliveries.

After an unsporting slow handclap and boos from the Kilkenny fans heralded Tipp’s delayed return for the second half, the champions soon set about updating the scoreline with Eoin Larkin’s converted ’65.

Eoin Kelly replied with a converted free before Kieran Joyce scored from distance. Although playing against the wind, Tipp were still well in contention. Conor O’Mahony and Michael Cahill were more settled in defence; Brendan Maher continued to display the form reminiscent of 2020, his best year in the blue and gold shirt, while Eoin Kelly was always in the thick of things until his departure.

Another major source of inspiration, Noel McGrath fed Shane Bourke for his only point before McGrath struck a mighty point from halfway to leave just a point separating them.

Again Kilkenny inched clear with another free from Eoin Larkin who, along with Michael Fennelly, Lester Ryan, Cillian Buckley and Michael Rice, was highly instrumental in his side’s success. A fierce bout of hooking and blocking , when possession changed hands a few times around the middle of the field, was interrupted by the sight of Lar Corbett and JJ Delaney grappling on the ground before both players were given red cards with 10 minutes of the second half elapsed.

With the way the game was going Kilkenny’s loss was greater but they still had the greater energy to prevail in a closely-fought encounter, despite shooting 11 wides (7 in the second half) compared to Tipp’s 6 (4 in the first half).

Tipperary – Darren Gleeson (0-1 free), Conor O’Brien, Paul Curran, Michael Cahill, Conor O’Mahony, Padraic Maher (0-1), Kieran Bergin, Brendan Maher (0-4), Shane McGrath (captain), Noel McGrath (0-3), Lar Corbett, Patrick Maher, Shane Bourke (0-1), Eoin Kelly (0-5 including 3 frees and 1 ’65) and Seamus Callanan (0-2 frees).

Substitutes – John O’Dwyer for Eoin Kelly (47 minutes), Jason Forde for Seamus Callanan (56 minutes), John O’Brien (0-1) for Shane McGrath (57 minutes), Pa Bourke (0-2 frees) for Shane Bourke (61 minutes) and James Woodlock for Patrick Maher (67 minutes).

Kilkenny – Eoin Murphy, Paul Murphy, J.J. Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, Kieran Joyce (0-1), Michael Rice (0-1), Lester Ryan (0-3), Cillian Buckley (0-1), Michael Fennelly (2-3), Eoin Larkin (0-6 including 5 frees and 1’65), Richie Hogan (0-1), Colin Fennelly (0-1, captain) and Aidan Fogarty.

Substitute – Matthew Ruth for Aidan Fogarty (62 minutes).

Referee – Barry Kelly (Westmeath).