No, we didn’t cope. Last week’s headlined question got a negative answer in a trap-to-line triumph for Kilkenny. The Cats were re-equipped with renewed fitness of important personnel, fore and aft, to regain their familiar position at the top and make 2010 the exception that proves their rule. The empty feeling has crossed the border into Tipp.
The jubilation has gone the other direction. Four points fell way short of conveying the Cats’ over-all superiority. A theoretical chance of rescue briefly appeared on Pa Bourke’s goal and he nearly got in a later effort but typical of Kilkenny’s superb defensive display the danger was averted. The logical outcome was confirmed by the last whistle. No scope for argument, they had it on the day and we hadn’t.
Losing a final is tough but at least the breaks and the decisions couldn’t be blamed for the failure. Quite why Tipp go so readily back-footed from the outset is hard to fathom, the pre-game tension ought to impel instant reaction and zest, yet only one side showed these qualities. At five nil, God help us, I was reminded of how slow our alleged 10.06 train was to leave Thurles station! Tipp too suffered from technical difficulties of ball control and striking - while Kilkenny flowed sweetly as the Nore. The mood of the afternoon had been set, less dramatically than Corbett set it a year ago, but ominously all the same. The Cat’s early points had our defence well stretched with our best resistance being from the Cahill - Maher flank. Michael’s brilliant intervention prevented a Larkin goal and Curran took the sliotar off the line when Cummins advanced to a dropping ball - how easily we could have been devastated in those emergencies.
By sharp contrast, nothing much was happening at the Railway sector and, truth to tell, not a lot of creative nature was to be seen all day, with big names being searched for by anxious eyes on stand and terrace. Four Kelly frees, a nice Noel McGrath point and a Gearoid Ryan effort had it at double scores, ten to five. A rare episode of a nose cut for the referee after a “Bonner” advance led to a little flare up actually caused an unhelpful lull at this stage.
Then arrived a serious breach of defence, the clean sheet spoiled by a brilliantly worked manoeuvre off a line ball, Michael Fennelly the receiver from Hogan off a Shefflin tap. The pace and inventiveness left our defenders stranded and Cummins without prospect of a stop. The psychological value of the goal was huge. A free to “Bonner”, that fine trier was the source of several gave Kelly the chance of leaving the deficit at five when the intermission came. It had been a sobering half for us and might have been decidedly worse. John O’Keeffe’s injury at the time of the lull in play brought in Brendan Maher before the break.
One doesn’t relish second guessing in the hour of gloom but, frankly, it made little selectorial sense not to have started Brendan. If he was to fail as a starter through lack of complete readiness, wasn’t he as likely to fail as a reserve? As things transfixed, he made a decent contribution on arrival. Half time chat among the Tipp following just had to be home in on the low profile of Lar Corbett compared to other, prolific days this year and last. Sticking to the square and with Tyrrell adhesive to him, the situation seem to call for moving outward in his usual fashion, but it happened not at all from first to last.
A radical transformation was clearly required if the second period was to be won by enough to outscore the confident, smooth moving Cats. Benny Dunne for Shane McGrath and Pa Bourke for Seamus Callanan were the remedial alterations, useful to a degree in both instance in Tipp’s late push. The nadir of the contest came when Richie Hogan doubled the gap from a feasible four at twelve - eight to a substantial eight at eighteen - ten. Eddie Brennan’s dash, speedy for a veteran, fed Hogan on the left and again revealed our defensive frailties and the Cats’ combination.
At this point, the signs pointed to a margin close to embarrassing for a team that came on-field as champions, reversing last year’s experience. Thankfully, if with no tangible reward, Tipp did battle it out manfully to the frantic urgings of the supporters. With a quarter left came our best moment and a restorer of tension to the struggle. A Brendan Maher ball was neatly turned to Bourke by Corbett. Pa beat Herity with a low drive to re-open the whole issue. David Young replaced Conor O’Mahony and, here again, the move had benefit. “Bonner” became the main carrier, if generally running into numerous tacklers.
Four adrift offered some hope but Kilkenny were far from ending their innings and extended it twice to five with aplomb. Noel McGrath and a Kelly free got it to a one score gap - if that score was to be a “major”. One half expected Eoin to have a rap for goal off the John O’Brien free - the odds against gaining a later goal were far from good. Twice more we got it down to three, lastly on Gearoid Ryan’s second flag, but no weakening was to be found in Kilkenny’s bid for regained supremacy, they had the climactic clincher from Eoin Larkin. Pa Bourke had almost found room for a saving drive. We’d restored much credit from a desperate situation but the honours belonged to the all round superior side. Shefflin and Brennan, Kavanagh and Hickey, stand with Ring and Doyle, some with sound prospects of going further than the old be-medalled heroes.
Keys to the outcome were multiple. Integrated back play, with the physical allied to the cool togetherness, smothering our forwards to suffocation point. Disappointment was severe for us in that department - Dublin achieved it too, so there was no reason why the Cats shouldn’t do at least as well. Their leaders were probably Tyrrell and Walsh but all six were into the tackle and available for the lay-off to pull off constructive deliveries. No great joy for Tipp either at midfield, where Shane McGrath’s fitness again came in question. Gearoid Ryan had a sound game, though, and became more of a forward than most of the nominal attackers.
The attacking exhibition against Waterford now seems a long time ago. I suppose we had a reality check against Dublin. Another was certainly imposed by the Cats, but one surely looked for most effective response on Sunday.
Time and room were repeatedly denied, efforts to strike baulked, the rucks generally lost as every clearance cheered the Cats supporters. Our backmen got no such freedom and were hurried often into getting rid of it rather than placing to colleagues. Individually, Michael Cahill was perhaps most effective, with Padraig Maher also very busily employed.
To sum up, congrats to the Cats. They lived up to the old song - “and the cat came back”. Nor are they likely to depart in a hurry. As to our lads, last year’s victory becomes even more of a breakthrough. We remain the main rival to the accepted best.