IT WAS like 2006 all over again. Kilkenny in the oh-so-rare role of underdog against defending champions. Kilkenny with a point to prove. Kilkenny with an all-consuming hunger that could have devoured all 81,214 people within Croke Park, let alone the 15 Tipperary players on the pitch at any one time.
And, in the end, we had Kilkenny, usually so phlegmatic in victory, celebrating at the final whistle as if it were their first All-Ireland senior hurling title. Instead, it was their 33rd.
Likewise, the exultant reaction of Brian Cody bespoke a manager finally landing that elusive All-Ireland after years of painstaking effort and perennial heartache … instead it was his eighth.
In one other respect, this year’s All-Ireland was redolent of 2006, when Kilkenny squeezed the life out of champions Cork to such an extent that you were amazed they only won by three points at the finish.
Yesterday was a mirror image: this |2-17 to 1-16 defeat actually flattered |Tipperary in the extreme.
For a team seeking to become the first two-in-a-row Tipp champions since the 1960s, it was surprising to see them outfought so thoroughly. At a more cerebral level, they were totally out-thought too.
Kilkenny set the agenda from the very opening minutes and at no stage over the next hour and more did they surrender that initiative. The razor-sharp forward movement and exploitation of space for which the (now former) champions are noted was marked absent. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we can all proclaim that there were ominous signs of this dearth of imagination and sharpness, even during Tipperary's semi-final win over Dublin.
And, yet, most of the kudos for this must go to an awesome Kilkenny defence and also the three wise men on their management team, Cody, Martin Fogarty and Michael Dempsey.
Individually, the Cats’ backs were sublime, Tommy Walsh headed our queue for Man of the Match ahead of JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell and Paul Murphy.
Collectively, they were the quintessential immovable object. Only this time, Walsh and Co were met by an |eminently resistible force – in a |statistical indictment of the team that fired seven goals past Waterford in the Munster final; Tipp's starting six forwards were reduced to just three points in open play.
Twelve months ago, against the same arch-rivals, the Kilkenny full-back line was left stretched, totally exposed, and on the receiving end of a four-goal Premier salvo.
Lesson learned. This time, Kilkenny held their shape for virtually the entire game. Defenders didn't get dragged out of position, with the net result that Pa Bourke's 55th minute goal was almost the only time David Herity was seriously threatened.
The build-up was noteworthy for what Tipp can produce in their pomp: Patrick ‘Bonner' Maher's excellent delivery, gathered by Lar Corbett and then, under pressure, managing to offload to a forward colleague running from deep.
This moment apart, Corbett was shunted to the periphery of the game by his perennial shadow, Tyrrell. He has hurt Kilkenny more than any other player in the past two All-Ireland finals; yesterday the Thurles flyer played as if he had lead in his boots.
Then again, he wasn't alone in being eclipsed by a dominant Kilkenny defender: Delaney demolished Seamus Callanan in the half he was on the |field; Noel Hickey squeezed the life out of Eoin Kelly; and Murphy, the one newcomer in that trophy-laden |
rearguard, played with an assurance you don't normally expect from an |All-Ireland debutant.
Meanwhile, Kilkenny's red-helmeted No5 did what Tommy Walsh invariably does in September.
He was like several players rolled into one: man-marker, sweeper and counter-attacking launch-pad. And so the |high-fielding Walsh shut out Maher in direct first-half combat while still finding time to pick up an occasion of breaks.
There are caveats, albeit minor ones. His direct opponent had one of those games where a player is well eclipsed and yet manages to win four converted frees while engineering another 1-1 for team-mates after the break.
Then you have Walsh's legendary feistiness: typically, he was in the thick of a first-half skirmish when his flailing hurl unwittingly caught referee Brian Gavin across the bridge of his nose.
When play resumed after several minutes of treatment for the bloodied whistler, Kelly pointed a tap-over free and Tipp only trailed by 0-5 to 0-3. They were lucky to be so close: only a brilliant intervention by Michael Cahill and a remarkably calm goal-line clearance by Paul Curran had denied first-quarter goals for Eoin Larkin and Richie Hogan respectively.
Kilkenny's first green flag finally arrived on 35 minutes, courtesy of rampaging midfielder Michael Fennelly. The chance was cleverly engineered by Henry Shefflin (with a short sideline
cut), Larkin, Shefflin again and Hogan with the final pop pass to Fennelly on the burst.
Yet the goal was also an indictment of slack concentration in the Tipp defence, both when falling asleep at the initial line ball and then in leaving Hogan totally unmarked.
Five minutes of first-half injury-time followed; when the whistle sounded, Tipp trailed 1-8 to 0-6 and looked in big trouble. On the flip side, to be still within touching distance having struggled in many sectors may have offered the champions a modicum of hope.
The third quarter brought no such morsels. Kilkenny were still five up even before Hogan's 49th minute wonder-strike, our shoo-in for Goal of the Season.
Typically, Walsh initiated the pitch-length move by winning a ball deep in defence and picking out Michael Rice, who fed Colin Fennelly. The latter's inch-perfect hand-pass gave Eddie Brennan a chance to remind us all of his ‘Fast Eddie' heyday, bursting through the middle before offloading to Hogan for an exquisitely arrowed |finish off his hurl. Pure gold.
Six minutes later, Bourke briefly ignited the Premier faithful, while Herity cursed himself for allowing a crisp, low drive bounce beyond him. The margin was suddenly reduced to four points and, three times thereafter, Tipp cut it to three. Yet they never looked like getting any closer.
While yesterday wasn't in the same league as the 2009 or 2010 deciders, the third instalment of this Kilkenny/Tipp trilogy was fascinating for its primeval intensity and savage hits.
It was also refereed with the type of laissez-faire approach we have come to expect from officialdom on All-Ireland hurling final day, but not its football equivalent.
That's a bugbear for another day. Yesterday belonged to the Cats.