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Jackie Tyrrell: Kilkenny’s leaders delivered right on cue

Cork’s challenge wilted in vital third quarter when Cody’s men turned up heat

With seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of this year’s SuperBowl, the Patriots running-back Sony Michel got in from two yards out to all but seal the victory for New England. When the ticker-tape came down, it was the sixth Lombardi Trophy in Tom Brady’s illustrious career.

If anyone remembers this year’s SuperBowl, it turned out to be a game dominated in defence. After all the hype and all the build-up, it became a slow, grinding arm-wrestle between the Patriots and the LA Rams that ultimately had very few bright sparks on the offensive side of the ball.

In a game like that on a stage like that, everyone knows it can’t go on being a grind forever. Eventually, one side or the other is going to step up and go about winning the game. It’s the SuperBowl, after all. Crunch time comes in every game in every sport, it’s just a matter of who dictates it and what they do with it.

What was really interesting that night was what went on in crunch time, that period in the game when decisions and actions ramped up with their level of importance. When the game was literally on the line and one play could win or lose it. No decisions are made by accident in those moments.


In that period of the game Brady turned to familiar faces to put the game in the bag. Rob Gronkowski set up that final touchdown with two huge catches. One went for 18 yards, the other went for 29. Now, this was in a game where catches over 10 yards had been like hen's teeth. They made all the difference and got Michel into position to go and win the game.

Listening to Gronk afterwards told the story.

“I knew it was going to come my way,” he said, meaning that really no matter what the cover looked like, Brady was going to get him the ball. Gronk had missed loads of the season through injury and through being kept back for the biggest stage at a point in his career where his body can’t give him what it used to.

But none of that mattered when it came down to crunch time – Brady was going to rely on him when they absolutely needed it. And Gronk didn’t disappoint.

I thought of that SuperBowl on Sunday as I left Croke Park. Crunch time comes in every sport but it’s more important in hurling now than ever. Every team can put up big scores. All the contenders have free-takers who won’t miss more than one or two a game. Games can go along with a kind of a tick-tock of scores, matching each other over and back until one side kicks clear of the other.

On Sunday, Kilkenny performed in the third quarter and Cork didn’t. It was as simple as that. Kilkenny brought the game to a level where Cork couldn’t breathe, where they made errors, where they were forced into poor decisions.

Some Cork players went missing – where the key players for Kilkenny came to the table in an orderly queue, Cork had only Patrick Horgan, Alan Cadogan and Stephen McDonnell. Kilkenny saw out the game but they won it in crunch time just after the break.

Stark contrast

In that period, Kilkenny outscored Cork 1-8 to 0-1 and formed the basis and foundation for their win. This was a stark contrast to the Leinster final where, coming down the home stretch, Kilkenny made some erratic choices with the ball and went for goals too early. It was obvious this time around that they had learned the lessons from the Wexford game.

They were efficient with the ball, they made the right decisions, took the score when it was on. Basically, they played with the traits that Brian Cody has always preached. He empowers the players to decide and play what's in front of them and above all, to give the ball to the guy in the better position. If you are in at corner-forward and not getting ball, get out there and make something happen.

On Sunday, John Donnelly and Colin Fennelly were perfect examples of that. The game can pass you by sometimes unless you go and get it. Go and look at Fennelly's goal in the first half. It started with Donnelly going back inside his own half to get on the ball. The number 15 on his back made no difference. Adrian Mullen took the pass with his back to goal, still in the Kilkenny half, made a brilliant turn and played it up to Colin to do the rest.

For the killer goal by Richie Hogan early in the second half, Kilkenny just left him and Colin inside. Long ball in, tap down from Colin into Richie's path and there's only going to be one outcome there. Richie nailed it and Kilkenny were moving into top gear.

Or think back to the Munster final. John McGrath gets a goal for Tipperary in the 44th minute as the game goes into crunch time and suddenly the sides are level. Didn’t matter what had gone before, now that game was about who could respond to the circumstances and rise above the other. One emphatic answer, Limerick.

So what happens in that scenario? It's not as if Limerick were trying harder than Tipp, after all. Sitting in the dressing room at half-time, all teams target the third quarter. Liam Sheedy would have been stressing the need for them to go out and really wire into it straight after the break – and they did it so well that they were level once McGrath got his goal.

Limerick’s leaders stepped up all over the field, they bossed the middle third with physicality and scrapped for every dirty ball as if their lives depended on it. And then when in possession, they moved the ball with pace, accuracy and conviction.

But it isn’t just a matter of upping the intensity. Everybody tries to do that. It’s recognising the moment and using every little bit of good play as a springboard to another. It’s switching on for the puck-out after you’ve scored a point, knowing that it’s a chance to get two for the price of one.

A goal counts for more in that period. A goal in the first half is great but there’s still time to reset and claw back the lead. A goal soon after half-time is different. It does more psychological damage to the opposition. It gives your own team a boost bigger than the three points that go on the scoreboard.

The jugular

This is especially true if you’re favourites for the game. When I played for Kilkenny, we always prided ourselves on going for the jugular when the chance arose. Go out, score early, score early after half-time, kill teams off. All of it designed to fulfil the pre-game doubts that opposition teams had when they played us.

That third quarter is the time for management to use the things they feel will act as triggers. Shane Dowling came on for Limerick last year in exactly the same minute in the All-Ireland semi-final and final. John Kiely turned to him both days and got him on in the 56th minute.

Each time it was a statement to Dowling, a statement to his team and, crucially, a statement to the Limerick crowd. It was like he was saying: “Okay, now let’s kick for home, here’s our weapon off the bench for the last 20 minutes. What have they got to match it?”

I always think that's the time for a show of strength. It's like the Sunday of a golf Major, Tiger Woods strutting out in his red shirt with the biceps bulging through it. Every bit of him proclaiming: 'This is my time. I want this. Do you? Do you really?" That's how you have to be in that crunch period.

Teams need to plan for it. Some teams just survive, hang in during the first half and regroup at half-time to be ready. To me, it looked like that’s what Kilkenny did on the weekend. When crunch time arrived, familiar faces came to the fore, as with Limerick in the Munster final.

When the need is greatest, the leaders step up. No matter how they are performing up to that point, they hunt the ball down, make something happen. It can be anything – a hook, a shoulder, a difficult free. Subs play a huge role and Walter Walsh and Billy Ryan did that on Sunday.

Different players have different triggers. Sometimes verbal, sometimes visual. I always listened out for the 63rd minute, when the stadium announcer would send the stewards to their end-of-match positions. That always gave me a huge boost.

I would be starting to lag on energy, gasping for oxygen after a gruelling game shadowing a top player. I’d be starting to feel the blisters bleeding underfoot, sucking for air. But I always found strength in the stadium announcer.

It meant I could now see the finish line. Just one more push and we are there. Looking up at the scoreboard at that time and seeing us ahead for a second was a big refocus juncture. I always wanted to meet whoever that chap was in Croke Park to thank him for his words of inspiration, even though he couldn’t have known.

He was probably a Kilkenny man!