The Cats are back with a vengeance
Kilkenny 2-23 Tipperary 2-17
"The Cats are back!" declared GAA president John Horan from the podium, prompting some of us to wonder how long had they been away?
The answer is roughly 20 months, if you date their 'disappearance' back to that epic 2016 All-Ireland semi-final replay against Waterford. For the subsequent final and all of last season, essentially they weren't mapped.
But the growing hints of rebirth this spring came to full bloom in a Nowlan Park cauldron yesterday, as Brian Cody's handful of decorated team leaders and raft of young rookies demolished Tipp.
Trailing by two, they lorded the second half to make it eight home wins on the spin against their greatest rivals.
The principal reason for victory? The metronomic majesty of TJ Reid who had tallied 15 points from 15 shots by the 54th minute. But just as pivotal was their intensity levels on the restart to leave the pre-final favourites scrambling for answers.
If Tipp's fade-out raised questions reminiscent of last year's league final collapse to Galway, this was ultimately a story about the winners.
This was like Kilkenny of old; many unfamiliar faces but the same voracious script. It was Brian Cody's ninth Allianz Hurling League title, equalling the number won by all his predecessors.
Many will cite this as his most significant yet.
Afterwards, Cody was asked to explain why young players are able to show that renowned spirit so early in their careers.
"I think it requires ambition to become part and parcel of it," he replied. "You can play club hurling, can play away, or you can challenge yourself to see where you can go. Can I get to the next level?
"We knew all the players coming up along; they are not new players to myself and the lads in charge of the team.
"We see attitude in them, we see genuineness in them. And it is not a question of fellas who can make the ball talk or do something like that. It is a question of who are prepared to work for the team, with very good skill as well."
And yet, if one hurler could make the sliotar sing yesterday, it was Reid. During the first half, when Tipp had the edge in a majority of the individual battles, Reid kept Kilkenny on their coat-tails.
It started with a sublime sideline cut from 50 metres and was followed by an array of frees from all distances to complement three inspirational points from play. For the first he oujumped his direct marker, Ronan Maher; then he did likewise to James Barry; and finally he dummied past Alan Flynn to land his eighth point, in stoppage-time.
That left Kilkenny two adrift (1-10 to 0-11) and went some way to negating the damage inflicted by Jason Forde's 24th minute goal, a bullet finish to round off superb approach play by Flynn (with a catch and clearance) and John McGrath (with the clever assist).
Kilkenny were out early for the second half; Tipp left them waiting for well over two minutes but their heads, it seemed, were still in the dressing-room. After just 23 seconds, Walter Walsh's soaring catch, bulldozing run and roofed finish had Kilkenny ahead.
Tipp would draw level just once, briefly, thereafter. They trailed by one when Eoin Murphy's magnificent reflexes denied Tipp's marquee sub, John O'Dwyer.
What followed was a tale of near-total Kilkenny domination under the Tipperary puckout. Their half-backs mopped up ball after ball while corner-back Paddy Deegan rivalled Reid for 'Man of the Match'.
A second Kilkenney goal from sub Conor Fogarty, on 63 minutes, killed any flickering prospect of a comeback, even though Forde (a rare font of Tipp excellence) squeezed home a 20m free soon after.
Forde actually finished as top-scorer, with 2-12, while the only shame was that Reid's flawless strike rate was tarnished in garbage-time when his 90m free trailed wide.
No matter: the Cats are back as serious summer contenders while Tipp's labouring attack is crying out for Séamus Callanan, Noel McGrath and 'Bonner' Maher.
Michael Ryan argued that the performance was "nothing like" last year's "non turn-up" against Galway ... but he couldn't mask his disappointment either.
"This was not what we wanted to bring to Kilkenny. Any part of the first half I wouldn't have been happy with either," Ryan added. "I just thought we were a little bit slow, a little bit lethargic and you can't come down and expect to get a result with that."