Hurling the ultimate winner in thrilling finale

Ebb and flow of HQ spectacular leaves protagonists alive to fight another day

All-Ireland hurling finals have become boundless in their capacity to delight and crush but even as the teams and supporters gathered their senses before leaving Croke Park yesterday, no one was surprised: A draw! Of course. Trust hurling to produce the one unexpected outcome.

For the third consecutive year the All-Ireland hurling final finished in a draw, with Kilkenny's haul of 3-22 matched by Tipperary's 1-28. From the first whistle, both teams conspired to transport the crowded house in Croke Park into a kind of dream, with score after brilliant score defining the afternoon. Tipperary were the architects of several excellent goal chances. They had two penalties saved, saw Lar Corbett hammer a terrific shot against the post and Kilkenny's Eoin Murphy deflect Patrick Maher's 59th minute drive over the crossbar. Other teams might have taken these disappointments as a sign from the cosmos, particularly as the black-and-amber men demonstrated such coolness in front of goals that they seemed to finish them in slow motion. Richie Power, born for these days, found the net in each half and TJ Reid, a colossal force in the Kilkenny attack in compiling 1-8, pushed his team into the lead with a snap strike just after half-time.

Momentum swung each way with the goals but it was the strikes from distance, the relentless series of jaw-dropping points which defined the day. The shooters erred just nine times, with John O’Dwyer’s 90m

free to win the day bringing Tipperary’s total shots missed to four.

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"It says a lot about the skill of the players first of all," said Brian Cody of the overall shooting display. "To create the goal chances the ball has to be won and there are a lot of players on the field capable of winning that original ball whether in the sky or on the ground. So a lot of skill by both teams."

O'Dwyer's 71st-minute strike seemed like the coup de grace of a perfectly timed late raid by Tipperary, who reeled off three points from play in three minutes to level the match. Tipp's composure in that period was extraordinary but the passage of play which led to the free was contentious, with Brian Hogan penalised for charging into Padraic Maher as he advanced in possession.

“So did I,” smiled Brian Cody when told the call may have been harsh. “It might have been a free for us . . . I presumed it was at first. But if the ball went over the bar, it was their game . . . So thanks be to God it didn’t.”

It was as if both managers knew the day was in the lap of the gods by then. The match was riveting: it seemed pass in the blink of an eye but the periods of dominance shifted so quickly and were so rich in quality and incident that the details of the game were difficult to process.

Richie Hogan landed a series of deft second-half points in keeping with his excellent season only for Noel McGrath to respond with two audacious strikes,

signalling a ravenous Tipperary appetite for battle. Neither team blinked when it came to self-belief or faith in one another. Séamus Callanan and Lar Corbett were in electrifying form in the Tipp attack while Patrick Bonner Maher, so often the facilitator of glory for team-mates, burst free for Tipperary’s only goal in the 21st minute. Shortly after that, Tipp had built a six-point lead. With 13 minutes left, they trailed by four. They hurled on.

For all the attacking brilliance, Kilkenny's Paul Murphy and Cillian Buckley were nimble and fierce in defending their own patch of grass while at the other end Tipp's Cathal Barrett and Paddy Stapleton emerged from a thicket of bodies to clear ball after ball. The tussle for possession and space was relentless, which made the rate and quality of scoring all the more of a trip. It was nonsensically brilliant.

“To be honest I don’t know,” said Brian Cody when asked about how he felt about what had transpired. “I have no real phenomenal feelings. Obviously you want to win . . . and we neither won nor lost so am I just as I am.”

It was such a breathlessly furious encounter that the big pre-match speculation about Henry Shefflin’s role was almost forgotten. The Ballyhale legend drew a huge reaction when introduced in the 67th minute, even as Tipp were on the cusp of their late surge. In other circumstances, Kilkenny may have called upon their talisman earlier but the on-field players gave Cody few reasons to call them ashore.

“They were playing very well and that is the reality. They were playing excellent and we were really going well at the time too. But that is a call you make and that is it.”

Kilkenny will study the reasons why they didn’t protect their late lead here. But the tone and scope of the match did not really allow for a sensible conclusion. The teams just blazed away, seemingly locked into a state where they responded in kind to the brilliance of the other side.

Maybe Tipperary could rue a few chances not created but Eamonn O’Shea, summing up the spirit of this wonderful day, waved any such worries away.

“Look! They are forwards. They work on instinct. Sometimes it turns out right and sometimes it doesn’t. You have to go with it . . . you can’t have an inquiry every time a guy makes a decision. You just have to go with it. Ups and downs. Ups and downs, you know.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times