Lights go out on Tipperary reign as they fail to match Kilkenny intensity

Michael Heverin

Michael Heverin

The lights went out in Croke Park about 25 minutes into Sunday’s final - about the same time that the lights were fading on Tipperary’s bid to retain the Liam McCarthy Cup.

A grey afternoon prompted the GAA to turn the floodlights on before the throw-in. As the day brightened the lights became redundant but it remained grey for Tipperary.

The champions didn’t surrender their title without a fight but unfortunately that cannot disguise the magnitude of the defeat.

Kilkenny’s four point winning margin doesn’t accurately reflect their dominance over the seventy minutes. They out-thought, out-muscled and out-played a Tipperary team that never reached the heights that we have come to expect - and the heights that they had shown in the previous two All Ireland finals.

While Tipperary fans were gutted two years ago, losing a final they thought they should have won, there was almost an air of resignation among fans at the final whistle on Sunday because they knew this was a game they didn’t deserve to win.

The All Ireland champions deserved tremendous credit for the brave battle in the last twenty minutes that took them to within three points of Kilkenny at one stage but in truth it didn’t reflect the overall pattern of the game.

Pa Bourke’s goal ten minutes from time gave a glimmer of hope as it brought the margin back to four points from seven, 2-13 to 1-12, but not for the first time, the next score was a Kilkenny one.

Twice over the next ten minutes Tipperary brought the margin down to a goal again but every time they did it was Kilkenny who got the next score.

A Gearoid Ryan point in injury time was the final time they were just three points behind and it was no surprise when Kilkenny broke again and Eoin Larkin hit the last point of the game to make the margin four for the final time.

Tipperary were left dejected at the end, not just by the defeat and their failure once again to put titles back-to-back but by the manner of the defeat.

A team that had thrilled the nation twelve months earlier, and repeated the dose in the huge Munster final win over Waterford, just failed to reach those standards on the day that mattered most.

Part of it can be explained by Kilkenny’s incredible hunger and intensity but that cannot tell the whole story.

Tipp just didn’t match up to them on the day and most of the one-on-one battles were won by players in the black and amber.

Kilkenny were better under the high ball, at the breaking ball, in 50-50 tussles and any time there was a scramble for possession it always appeared to be a Kilkenny player that either emerged with the sliothar in hand or else poked it away for a better placed colleague.

Tipperary just didn’t get any of the breaking ball in those situation and by the end it was becoming frustrating for the players and the supporters.

It was a quite remarkable statistic that last year’s hat-trick hero Lar Corbett failed to register a score in this year’s final. But that didn’t prevent the Sarsfield man using very last ounce of energy for the cause, always battling to get a foothold in the game and he was instrumental in the Tipperary goal, providing the final pass to club colleague Pa Bourke.

However Tipperary badly missed his threat in front of goal and once his contribution was so well curtailed by Jackie Tyrrell and company, it eroded a huge element of the Tipperary threat.

Corbett hardly got room to breath such was the way the Kilkenny defence smothered the Tipp attack.

Last year’s final and this year’s can hardly have been more different in terms of the space allowed to Corbett and the way his options were so curtailed this time.

It was as if Kilkenny knew once that route to goal was blocked for Tipperary that their own forwards would do the damage at the other end.

And so it proved with the scoring of Richie Power, Henry Shefflin, Eoin Larkin and Richie Hogan. Add in the immense contribution of Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice at midfield where the Leinster side maintained dominance over the hour and you had the foundations for a Kilkenny victory.

Alarm bells had been sounded after the semi-final when four of the Tipperary forwards were withdrawn in what was considered a sub-standard Tipp display. It was thought then that was due to the intensity of the Dublin challenge but flaws seen then were witnessed again on Sunday.

The fluency and cohesion we had become accustomed to were sorely absent. Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher can be excused blame for the defeat - quite remarkably his marker Tommy Walsh was also outstanding - but Maher never gave up the fight, battling to the end and being responsible for a majority of the frees won by his side.

But too often he also ran into a phalanx of black and amber jerseys that he could never get past or manage to get a telling pass away to a better placed team mate.

Most of the star Tipp performers were at the other end, nonemoreso than Padraic Maher but he was targeted by Kilkenny and his impact was less than Tipp had expected - the Leinster side’s forwards did to him what the backs did to Corbett.

Maher’s duties were more defensive this time than providing booming clearances into the upstretched hand of Corbett that had become such a feature of Tipp’s gameplan.

Maher’s two half back partners, John O’Keeffe and Conor O’Mahony were withdrawn, giving an indication of the pressure that sector was under. O’Keeffe lasted less than half an hour after coming under extreme pressure on his flank, perhaps not surprisingly having been given the task of curbing ‘King Henry’.

The fullback line was steadier, with Paul Curran also showing immense composure to clear a ball off the line that looked destined to cross it, while corner backs Paddy Stapleton and Michael Cahill impressed under such extreme pressure, Cahill making a brilliant block after just three minutes to deny Larkin what seemed a certain goal.

The Kilkenny pressure was intense from the opening seconds and forced Tipp into too many mistakes. A Michael Fennelly point seven minutes into the second half resulted from Tipp mistakes from the most unlikely of sources, Padraic Maher first hitting a misplaced pass and then sub Brendan Maher being hooked.

It’s not often that two of Tipp’s marquee players combine to concede such a score but such was the relentless nature of the Kilkenny play - no one had time to settle on the ball and whoever dallied was quickly punished.

And that summed up the day. No one doubted for one second that Kilkenny would come into the game with unrivalled intensity, still smarting after last year’s defeat and determined not to lose successive finals to their greatest rivals.

Tipp must have been prepared for that but unfortunately they couldn’t deal with it. In rugby parlance, Kilkenny turned over so much Tipperary ball that the champions had nothing to work with.

Kilkenny might not have got the early goal they craved but five unanswered points were as good. And with a final margin of four points, they were the scores were decided the game.