ALL WEEK, VERY few people were willing to stick their neck out with confident predictions about who would win today’s All-Ireland final, but coming into the game you probably would have said that Tipperary were going the better of the two.
Even though the Galway game wasn’t that good, they still got over it, whereas Kilkenny probably could have been beaten both days by Waterford and lost Michael Fennelly to injury which was a massive blow today.
It shaped the game from the first puck. I know TJ Reid was named in midfield alongside Conor Fogarty but when Brian Gavin went to throw the ball in, I was amazed to see him actually lining out there.
TJ has probably been Kilkenny’s top scorer over the last few years, frees included, and I would have seen himself and Richie Hogan as their kingpins. To take either of those two out was a strange move because midfield is a position where some days, it can just pass you by.
TJ had a good enough game but he does most of his damage closer to the goal and I felt that was a mistake. Taking him out of the there allowed the Tipperary backs to focus their energy on fewer threats. You would have expected more from Colin Fennelly and from Richie Hogan, who tried hard, but Tipperary could work on them because they didn’t have that big threat around them.
Then you had Ronan Maher who put in a huge performance at 20-years-old. Tipperary have been looking for a centre-back for a while and he is the man for it now. He delivered some great ball in in the first half as well, and Richie barely got a puck of the ball apart from the goal. All five of those Tipp guys starting in their first All-Ireland final stood up; even Dan McCormack, who came off early, contributed.
If you were watching the game and didn’t look at the scoreboard, Tipperary were well on top in that first half, but it was still level in terms of scores for most of it.
There were a few positive signs from a Tipp perspective. From open play, Richie Hogan and Eoin Larkin were dropping back into their own half-back line. They were picking up ball there but they weren’t doing enough damage and the Tipp half-backs were in control even at that stage.
When he took over this team, I’d say Michael Ryan knew he had a good 1-9 but needed to get more out of his forwards in terms of workrate, and that was the most evident thing for me throughout the game. They were outstanding. They turned over the Kilkenny backs more times than I’ve ever seen Kilkenny turned over, even if they weren’t really capitalising with scores every time in the first half.
Kilkenny couldn’t get to grips with the intensity of their tackling at all, they couldn’t get a puck away, and the full-back line was in all sorts of trouble every time the ball went in. That was the winning of the game for Tipperary really because the Kilkenny backs coughed up so much ball.
Noel McGrath, Padraic Maher and Ronan Maher were all getting good ball in and when Seamus Callanan and John O’Dwyer were getting out in front, the space they had was so uncharacteristic for Kilkenny. It nearly didn’t matter what kind of ball was going in. Tipperary had that much space and it was killing the Kilkenny full-backs.
The most simple solution would have been for one of the half-backs to just sit in for 10 minutes and give a bit a cover. It’s not like Tipp were winning primary possession cleanly — it was usually a contest — but they had plenty of space to break the ball out in front of them and then take control. Then they were one-on-one and that’s what they thrive on.
It was that space that allowed Seamus Callanan to run riot. At the moment, he has to be the best forward in the country by far, and when he gets you one-on-one, he’s virtually unmarkable. Cork tried to put a sweeper on him which Kilkenny were never going to do but drastic times call for drastic measures.
He was exceptional and certainly earned his Celtic Cross this afternoon. A Tipp man must be favourite for Hurler of the Year and he’s right there in the conversation now along with someone like Padraic Maher.
When you’ve got Kilkenny in an All-Ireland final, it’s always in the back of your mind that if they’re still close with 20 minutes left, they can just turn it on. They’ve been there before and they know what to do. When Kevin Kelly’s goal came, I thought that would be the moment for them, but the opposite happened. The manner in which Tipperary absorbed that goal was remarkable; they came back out and they were four points up before you knew it.
If there were any doubts about Michael Ryan’s decision to start Bubbles, he showed his worth today and his goal came at a crucial time. When you take it all together with Callanan and John McGrath, it might well be the best performance we’ve seen from a full-forward line in an All-Ireland final.
Kilkenny didn’t help themselves though and the most startling thing given Brian Cody’s experience is that he didn’t change it at all really. If I was Jackie Tyrrell sitting on that bench… I suppose Cody was looking at Jackie and thinking that maybe the pace is not there any more but at that stage, you have nothing to lose. Jackie’s experience might have turned it a little bit; you could even have put Jackie in the corner and moved Paul Murphy to full-back if you wanted to change it up.
I think it’s obvious that if Kilkenny had better options on the bench, Cody wouldn’t have sat tight for so long. You could see him on the line with his backroom team having heated debates. They were trying to make the change but they just didn’t have the same calibre of guy that they’re used to bringing in.
Even when they were winning All-Irelands for the last few years, the teams weren’t of the same quality. The JJs, Tommy Walshes, Henry Shefflins and Eddie Brennans are irreplaceable and they were nearly losing one every year. Even though the guys coming in are good, they’re huge boots to fill.
A winner like Cody will always feel that he could have done more to swing things in his favour but nothing will take away from his record and his legacy as the greatest hurling manager we’ve ever seen. You can bet that he’ll back again next year as determined as ever.
Even though we saw the changing of the guard today, I think Kilkenny and Tipperary are still a good bit ahead of the posse. Tipperary’s win will be good for hurling because it will give everybody hope. If it looks like Kilkenny are taking a step back, Clare, Waterford and Galway will think that they have a right chance.
But make no mistake, this was a day full of outstanding performances from a team who fought every ball for 70 minutes to make sure Liam MacCarthy was coming home with them.
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