In the pantheon of great hurling games it will surely hold an honoured place long into the future. A mesmerising spectacle held fans spellbound as Tipperary and Kilkenny played out an unbelievable stunner. That it should go to a re-match had a certain poetic justice to it after a game of endless swings and roundabouts – though how we craved that final free to split the posts!
Wow! The yanks would probably call it awesome but even our richer hurling vocabulary is running short of superlatives. It’s a game that has drawn universal admiration and Tipp people walk tall this week because of our proud involvement in the entire spectacle.
Seldom has a match left people so speechless. Watching the fans traipsing from Croke Park at the end of it all you could see dazed expressions as if to say ‘did that really happen?’ It was that sort of game that careered headlong to its dramatic conclusion and left fans bemused as they tried to make sense of it all.
Some of the scores were wonders of nature and fittingly John O’Dwyer’s leveller was among the finest. It capped a marvellous late rally by Tipperary, one that came within inches of swiping a sensational win on that late and controversial free.
‘Bubbles’ was only one of a team of heroes. In fact seldom have we seen such a complete performance from a Tipperary side with players fore and aft answering all the questions about their capabilities that were posed in advance.
An even first quarter tilted out way on ‘Bonner’s’ twentieth minute raid which saw him squeeze the ball beneath goalie, Murphy. It was first blood to Tipperary who were now five-up. Minutes later ‘Bonner’ was thundering towards the hill once again and the ‘penalty’ that followed offered hope of significant daylight between the teams. Alas the new dispensation makes converting ‘penalties’ problematic and in any case Callanan’s strike hit the ground too soon to bother the trio of defenders.
A perceptive Kilkenny comment afterwards pointed up an irony on the penalties. If the referee had got the calls right they’d have been mere twenty metre frees with crowded goalmouths and Tipperary would probably have opted for the tap over points. On such ironies games are often decided.
Our early superiority was built around stern defending and industrious midfield play. Yet our lead was soon reined in as Reid and Power found the opening for the latter’s tap-in past Gleeson. We got to half time at two-up, not as substantial as looked likely earlier but still a healthy position. Thus far our pre-match worries were proving unfounded. The defence was holding up well, Woody and McGrath were turning in a useful shift at midfield and the attack looked inventive with ‘Bonner’ once again providing the cutting edge and several of the others chipping in more effectively than in the semi-final.
Yet in a blink it all changed on the restart. T.J. Reid seemed to be well crowded out when fed possession near goal but somehow he swivelled and dropped the ball low for a pile-driver which Gleeson saw late and had little chance of averting.
Once again Tipperary’s battling spirit was tested and once more it rose to requirements. The point-taking was incredible for its sheer economy. Three Tipperary wides over the span of the game was just one of many startling stats from this hurling master class.
In truth our overall hurling deserved better than the luckless attempts near goal. Gearoid Ryan had probably the clearest chance but somehow clipped his effort over with just goalie Murphy to beat. ‘Bonner’ drove through once again and this time Murphy executed a marvellous reflex that diverted the ball over. And what about Larry’s one off the woodwork? Goal of the year had it been an inch lower and one feared the worst at this stage as shades of ’09 came back to haunt us.
The haunting was doubly unnerving when Ritchie Power turned one away from Stapleton and drove in for their third goal giving Gleeson no chance. Ritchie Hogan’s growing impact after switching onto Paudie Maher was another unsettling aspect for Tipperary. We fell behind as Hogan hit three highest quality points on the trot before Mickey Cahill eventually was called to arms in place of Gearoid Ryan.
The pessimist in me felt that only a goal would save Tipperary as we headed into the final phase chasing the game. But that was to ignore the character-driven resolve of this team. We didn’t get the goal but we got precious points. Paddy Stapleton did a Domhnail O’Donovan on one of them and then sub, Jason Forde, hit another in between a pair from the effervescent ‘Bubbles’.
Then it was Kilkenny’s turn to sweat on the final play of the game after Brian Hogan was adjudged to have barged into Paudie Maher. It would have been a cruel one for Kilkenny to lose on and I suspect they would have been given another chance if ‘Bubbles’ had managed to hit the target on that long-ranger.
So, like any good soap opera, the cliff hanger draws us to another day and another battle. It will be difficult to get more from Tipperary after such a stupendous effort and equally difficult to find fault with anyone who saw duty last Sunday.
Goalie Gleeson built his reputation on the Cork semi-final and, overall, enhanced it this time with a few vital interventions though there was that fumbled pick-up which gifted one second half point.
The defence in general stood up manfully, tackling and harrying in numbers, which is essential when Kilkenny come calling. Barrett was once more superb; like Bergin those surges outfield lift the entire team. Stapleton had some bother with Ritchie Power but will remember his day with pleasure too for some fine inputs including that point and a late fetch which he had no right to make. Brendan Maher had, by his high standards, a relatively quiet day and Paudie Maher did well apart from that spell when Ritchie Hogan went walkabout. Barry too played a steady part as our stand-in full back.
The midfield pair ensured a decent return and both got on the score sheet once more before giving way to fresher legs.
But the real bonus for Tipperary this time was the collective impact of the attack. ‘Bonner’ was again incredible, regularly taking several defenders to halt his progress. John O’Dwyer is developing into the more complete player these days – some of his scores were magic on Sunday. Noel McGrath upped his form majorly – and his scoring touch – while Gearoid Ryan never lacks for commitment though his end return is sometimes disappointing.
That leaves Callanan and Corbett and both won major kudos on Sunday. Callanan scored five points from play and surely buried this myth that J.J. Delaney has his measure. Corbett was like a man possessed bravely taking on that defence at every opportunity. So much for those who saw him as a spent force.
Of the replacements Cahill and Forde were excellent though one would have to question some of the other adjustments. It was surprising that Denis Maher saw no action.
Overall then it was one of those days to be treasured with more, hopefully, to come on Saturday fortnight. Without spoiling the party in any way it is appropriated, however, to insert a little qualification into all this. Kilkenny still aren’t beaten so while acknowledging the brilliance of last Sunday let’s also keep the focus on unfinished business.
The fall-out from this draw is major for our club championship with all key games scheduled for next weekend being postponed until after the All Ireland replay. That includes three divisional deciders with the North Final going ahead. A quiet weekend ahead then as we sit out a three-week break before returning to Croke Park.