In a nutshell, Tipperary out-Kilkennyed Kilkenny this time to emerge as very deserving and worthy winners of this All-Ireland final. Any doubts which possibly existed about resolve or work rate were well and truly dismissed by a Tipperary performance over Kilkenny that quite rightly justified their status as the best team in this year's championship.
This was a huge win for Tipperary – there’s no other way to put it. Huge! Tipperary’s strength in the first tackle, their aerial ability throughout, their skill in the forwards and their intensity was reminiscent of Kilkenny at their level best, which should be taken as a serious compliment.
From Mick Ryan and his management team’s perspective, they couldn’t have asked for any more from the players. In terms of power, aggression, skill and intelligent hurling, Tipperary were fantastic.
Tipperary were the favourites going in and most people thought they were the better team, but they had to confirm that by beating a team that had developed into one that didn't know how to lose. We'd seen Kilkenny's resilience dragging them out of a hole against Waterford in the semi-final and Tipperary had to cope with that. As it turned out, I think Tipperary's own narrow win over Galway in the semi-final was a plus factor: it put them a little bit on the back foot and when Tipperary, in my experience, are on the back foot they're very, very dangerous.
Too far ahead
There’s a tendency in Tipperary to often look too far ahead because Tipperary haven’t retained the All-Ireland since going back-to-back in 1961 and ‘62. Many of us have tried as players and managers to achieve that and failed since. And, for sure, that’s the next step for this group of players to aspire to. But they should take it match by match and aim to repeat this level of performance.
All through this championship there’s been a cut about Tipperary; from the get-go, there’s been a sense of serious purpose. We’ve seen the hallmarks of Mick Ryan. His directness as a player is well-known but he’s brought that to this team with his management and there’s a great unity about them. This Tipperary group has had enough disappointments since 2010 and it is a testament to the players that they’ve fought through it and new players have also come in and certainly added to the cause.
Ryan wasn’t afraid to blood those players and particularly John McGrath stands out as an example of this approach. For me, McGrath’s arrival has been the major difference for Tipperary this year. His ball-winning ability, his directness, his use of the ball, his goal-scoring threat . . . he carries all those attributes and time and time again delivers the goods.
In the early stages of this final, there were times when Tipperary looked anxious. Perhaps understandably so. There were a couple of misses from Bubbles O’Dwyer and Dan McCormack early on that typified this nervousness and it held Tipperary up for a while, but they later worked up a full head of steam and got their full reward in the second half for the amount of play they had.
Still, as the first half developed, the warning signs were there for Kilkenny. John McGrath,
and Bubbles were getting way too much freedom from a Kilkenny point of view. In injury time of that first half, there were some big moments and instances of great intensity which all went Tipperary’s way and that worked in their favour going into the second half. It was only a two points lead, it could have been more, but those shows of intensity were also important. Kilkenny knew they had their backs up against the wall.
Even when Tipperary were rocked in the second half when Kevin Kelly snuck a goal for Kilkenny, the questions were asked and answered. Tipperary attacked the ball and this was their strategy all over the field. What happened to TJ Reid was typical of what was happening all over the place. Reid caught some good ball but was consistently swallowed up. Tipperary swarmed Kilkenny all over the pitch and kept the momentum.
Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy performed heroics at times; he was like the boy with his finger in the dyke, but they were swimming against the tide and it was only a matter of time before the dam burst. It came with the goal from Bubbles O'Dwyer and the string of points either side of that goal which saw Tipperary create a gap that honestly never looked like it would be closed. Darren Gleeson's save from Kevin Kelly seemed to confirm that. With Paudie Maher's fetch over Walter Walsh to point, the writing was on the wall for Kilkenny.
Tipperary also had a clear edge on the bench. Kilkenny didn’t have or chose not to make replacements in the full-back line whereas Tipperary’s subs impacted. Jason Forde got a point straight away and Niall O’Meara carried hard.
Head of steam
When the Tipperary train got up that head of steam, there was no stopping it. Every mistake in the Kilkenny defence was punished; Tipperary’s decision-making all over the field was superb and they used that ball excellently.
The biggest compliment that you could place on the Tipperary players was that they all played like Bonner Maher in terms of work rate. This time, he wasn’t alone. Bonner Maher worked as hard as ever but he wasn’t a lone crusader – his late point was the icing on the cake – and that unity of purpose from Tipperary was evident throughout.