Kilkenny and Tipperary may have been late into the action in this season's All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship but their respective performances and victories in Nowlan Park and the Gaelic Grounds leave little doubt about their wellbeing. It's ominous for the rest of the hurling fraternity.
It’s not so much the margin but the manner of their wins. The teams that proved they were ahead of everyone else and contested last year’s high quality All-Ireland final produced clearly defined game-plans and discharged them with ruthless efficiency and high skill levels.
There was no talk afterwards about missing or retired players, just an acknowledgement those who have been handed the jerseys are capable of filling them. A most eloquent endorsement of this view was the tally of 3-5, all from play, by Kilkenny’s Ger Aylward on his championship debut.
Galway and Waterford may yet challenge yesterday’s victors, but in the case of the former they haven’t had their championship credentials examined thoroughly in a competitive environment, at least to this point. The Tribesmen are bubbling nicely having added a facile victory over Laois to the one against Dublin.
An interesting footnote to the championship this weekend is that the teams that were hammered, Laois,
, all struggled during the National League. To build a case for Limerick and Wexford prior to the matches, it was necessary to revert to last July and August, when they were last in their pomp. They carried their patchy league form into this season’s championship.
Kilkenny did as they pleased for most of the game at Nowlan Park with Aylward well supported by players like TJ Reid and Richie Hogan. They won't get carried away in evaluating the win but they will enjoy the manner in which it was crafted.
Tipperary were equally impressive against a relatively disappointing Limerick team. The talk before the game centred on how Tipperary hadn’t won a Munster Championship match for three seasons and the fact Limerick held the upper hand in recent summer meetings.
They answered those questions emphatically, the robust, fluent nature of the display interspersed with some wonderful point-taking. John "Bubbles" O'Dwyer gave several classic examples from out on the sideline. Limerick's Seamus Hickey was in close attendance but powerless to intervene.
Tipperary passed a mental and physical test. I remember as a player travelling to the Gaelic Grounds and the one thing that you were assured of was a reminder of where you were, on the pitch and in the stands. The supporters and team fed from one another, but there was precious little of that yesterday.
The only time the Limerick crowd was energised were the minutes after halftime culminating in Shane Dowling's successful penalty, but even those offered something of a microcosm of the team's failings. Donal O'Grady was blocked down and Graham Mulcahy missed a relatively straightforward chance at a time when Limerick needed to underpin the momentum shift with scores.
They had great difficult y in getting scores to the point so it was hardly a surprise TJ Ryan argued vociferously for a point that would have put them level.
From there Tipperary quickly opened up a gap of four or five points on the scoreboard, facilitated by sloppy defending and distribution on the part of their opponents, the relaxed into the rhythm they’d shown earlier. Jason Forde effectively ended the game with his goal.
Limerick were light years removed from the side that had put Kilkenny to the pin of their collars last August. There were signs in the defeat to Dublin in the quarterfinals of the league when they lacked fitness. And it was a bit late in the league season to be struggling in those terms.
The Tipperary forwards were dominant from the get-go, winning the aerial battles, moving sharply to the ball and in support of one another. The player in possession always had an option or two. Seamus Callinan beat Richie McCarthy all ends up and his goals were particularly destructive, both in terms of the scoreboard and Limerick's confidence.The home side didn't help themselves, careless in executing even the basic tenets of the game, something they simply couldn't afford. A couple of Limerick defensive errors led to goals and points.
Tipperary retained a shape to their patterns.
was withdrawn and picked up a lot of loose ball, the forwards moved and switched fluently, and the spine of the team was strong from James Barry at fullback, Pauric Maher at centre half back, centre half forward Brendan Maher right through to Callinan. It was a joy to watch Bubbles O’Dwyer and those silky skills.
The word emanating from the Tipperary camp in the build-up to the game was that things had gone well in training and challenge matches and they were going to Limerick confident of winning. The players and management set this game up as a must win and they backed it up .
Tipperary will get stronger. Along with Kilkenny they have arrived late but the style for both is unmistakable.