Sunday 20 January 2019

Final for the ages ends with all to play for

Kilkenny and Tipp set a new benchmark with epic draw

WHEN the dust had settled on a game of breathless splendour, we were left with unfinished business and yet a sense that if the world ended tomorrow, this would have been the perfect send-off.

Just how good was yesterday's All-Ireland senior hurling final? The 2009 finale between these counties is widely acclaimed as the modern-day benchmark for greatness, with last year's final replay between Clare and Cork a close second.

Yet in our humble opinion, this topped the lot. The term "all-time classic" should not be a term dispensed lightly, or in haste; we do neither in describing yesterday in such exalted terms.


In the end, it came down to one fateful late free that required the intervention of Hawk-Eye to decree that Tipperary and Kilkenny must return to Croke Park on Saturday, September 27 with a 5pm throw-in.

John O'Dwyer had been one of many Tipp heroes and when immediately after unleashing his long-range free, from just outside his own '45', he put his arm in the air, convinced he had hit the jackpot on his All-Ireland final debut.

But his shot trailed wide, by the narrowest of margins, with Croke Park's electronic eye in the sky the ultimate arbiter.

If O'Dwyer had struck gold, doubtless we would have heard a few more audible Kilkenny complaints about the pivotal injury-time decision that led to that free, Brian Hogan being penalised for barging in possession.

Given such decisions are relatively rare, it was a debatable call even if an initial replay seemed to suggest Barry Kelly had got it right. Either way, it won't be remembered as the winning and losing of this All-Ireland. For that we must wait another three weeks.

In truth, even if yesterday proved an emotionally draining experience not just for the players but for the 82,179 lucky enough to witness it, that late-September sequel can't come quickly enough. Up until 2012, we had waited 53 years for an All-Ireland SHC final replay; now we've had three deadlocks on the spin. Incredible.

But not half as incredible as the spectacle that delivered us stalemate. Some teak-tough defenders of yesteryear may go against the consensus, some pedants may offer up some contrary statistics to argue otherwise, but this was a spectacular feast on so many levels.

It was the highest-scoring All-Ireland final since the 80-minute showdown of 1970 - but even then, only because Cork and Wexford amassed 11 goals between them that day. No previous 70-minute final had delivered such an abundance of scores, and only one predecessor (the aforementioned '09 decider) had seen both sides top the 20-point mark.

Here, Tipp eclipsed that number with an abundance to spare. Hard to conceive that you could score 1-28 - as Eamon O'Shea's team managed here - and somehow fail to win. By the same token, Brian Cody would have slept soundly on Saturday night if he'd been told his team would score 3-22 ... instead, the veteran boss was reliant on the whims of fickle fate, and O'Dwyer's inaccuracy, to preserve his quest for a tenth All-Ireland title on his watch.


At this remove, it's almost impossible to decipher who has the psychological edge. Kilkenny confidence will be nourished by their generally positive record in replays. On the flip side, they will be worried by an inability to protect the four-point lead established by Richie Hogan's sixth and final score from play in yet another standout display from the roaming No 8.

Kilkenny legs, it seemed, were tiring in that home straight as a re-emboldened Tipp sensed one last chance. Curiously, Cody waited until the 66th minute to bring on his perennial talisman: the only inference could be that he felt Henry Shefflin's 35-year-old legs mightn't survive the 100mph pace.

But what of Tipperary? Will they view yesterday as a positive portent, and proof that their oft-questioned mettle can survive the toughest of examinations? We suspect yes.

On the other hand, though, Kilkenny don't often offer second chances and the underdogs will lament their failure to convert two penalties (Séamus Callanan and O'Dwyer being repelled by Eoin Murphy after 23 and 59 minutes). Moreover, in echoes of '09, they will bemoan a necklace of spurned goal chances in the space of four frenetic minutes during the third quarter.

Lar Corbett, belying lowly pre-final expectations, was desperately unlucky to see his arrowed 41st minute shot, seemingly destined for the top corner, strike the upright instead. Soon after, the excellent Murphy was sharply off his line to block Seamus Callanan. Then Gearóid Ryan blazed another goal chance over.

Tipperary had led by 1-13 to 1-11 after a thrilling first half that fizzed by. It could have been even more - they briefly led by six points, soon after Patrick 'Bonner' Maher's 21st minute shot had squirmed under Murphy. And yet the aerial threat posed by TJ Reid, relocated to full-forward, had led directly to Richie Power's 25th minute goal and augured ominously for Tipp.

Within 45 seconds of the restart, Reid had buried a goal chance of his own to edge Kilkenny ahead for the first time since the 12th minute ... and having survived that torrid spell without conceding a second goal, they established a three-point daylight via Power's superb second goal, the Carrickshock man flicking Michael Fennelly's delivery into his own path and showing ice-cool composure with his finish.

From there on, Tipp were chasing ... but Callanan and O'Dwyer, their two go-to forwards, were central to the comeback.

They richly deserve a second chance; but so do those incorrigible Cats.

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