Kilkenny victory reveals strength in depth
Squad rotation fails to derail title-chasing side but focus now turns to championship
Tipperary’s James Woodlock and Richie Power of Kilkenny at close quarters in the Allianz National Hurling League Division One Final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
When Kilkenny took refuge in the dressing room at half-time during Sunday’s gripping league final in Thurles, they didn’t have to search too far for a useful reference point.
After a convincing opening six-minute blitz during which they concocted 0-4 without reply, Kilkenny were gradually reeled in by Tipperary and found themselves outscored by 0-6 to 0-1 between the 15th and 27th minutes, when the home defence turned the screws and Tipperary’s vaunted forward players looked as if they were enjoying life.
John O’Dwyer’s goal on the half hour completed the turnaround and Tipperary led by 1-11 to 0-8, a significant gap in which every ball was the subject of a tooth-and-nail fight. The penalty which Kilkenny were awarded on the stroke of half-time rectified matters on the scoreboard, but as the teams headed down the tunnel there was a sense that Tipperary had had the upper hand.
“We were in a far worse position against them in the league in Nowlan Park earlier this year; we were 10 or 11 points down,” said Richie Power. “It was nip and tuck all the way. Tipp got a bit of a run on us in the first half but we regrouped at half-time. We knew what we were capable of if we pushed and pushed. We stuck to it and it would have been unfair on any team to lose in normal time, but it’s still only the league at the end of the day. The big prize is in September and I’ve no doubt, looking at that Tipp team, they’ll be there or thereabouts.”
There was enough substance and skill and, most of all, desire, in
this final to suggest that both of the old firm contestants are capable of having a major say in the destination of this year’s All-Ireland. It was heavyweight stuff from the get go, with the unmistakable sense that the teams were stress testing one another with high summer in mind.
“You saw yourselves what kind of game it was out there, that was as close to championship pace as you’re going to get,” acknowledged Power. “That’s going to stand to both teams no end going into the first round of the championship itself. We came out on the right side of it in extra time but a draw could have been a fair result. We’ll take the one-point win and push on now for the championship in five weeks’ time.”
Kilkenny open their All-Ireland campaign against Offaly, a tie which evokes images of a period when the Leinster championship was a minefield. Kilkenny have dominated the province since Brian Cody took charge and the provincial success has been a continuation of the competitive approach they take to the league.
This generation of Kilkenny players made another piece of history by winning the league for third consecutive year, a feat no county has managed since the Tipperary team of the 1960s. Cody acknowledged earlier this year that Kilkenny had failed to rotate the squad enough during last year’s league and used his squad liberally this year.
Competition for places
The result, as Power
said, is that nobody can be certain of their place. Brian Hogan was commanding at centre back in the league semi-final against Galway and yet was held in reserve yesterday as Jackie Tyrell was used at number six. Eoin Larkin and Walter Walsh, proven All-Ireland winners, got limited minutes. Colin Fennelly, exceptional during the league season, was withdrawn early.
Tommy Walsh, one of the greats of the Cody era, was not used. Henry Shefflin was substituted in normal time and did not reappear during extra time. Never has Brian Cody’s emphasis on the squad seemed so apt.
“We set out at the beginning of every year to win every tournament we’re in, that’s Brian’s philosophy,” said Power. “He probably used the league this year more to look at players than in other years – look at the guys out there like Pádraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley, they’re really stepping up to the mark. They’re putting pressure on the rest of us and that can only be good for us. We’ll go back to the clubs now for 10 days or so and we’ll play Clare at a pitch opening in a couple of weeks. Then it’s Offaly.”