Tipperary have every incentive to make a final statement
Ryan’s men can end a poor record in league finals by defeating arch-rivals Kilkenny
Shane McGrath and his disappointed Tipperary team-mates after the 2-17 to 0-20 league final defeat to Kilkenny at Nowlan Park in 2013. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
There was just a minute gone in the second half of extra-time in the 2009 league final. A minute gone and nine to go and all money down.
Noel McGrath, 18-years-old and a prince in the making to anyone’s eye, fastened onto a Lar Corbett pass and nailed the finish. A goal to go along with another five points for the afternoon, four of them from play. It put Tipp two ahead – all they had to do was hold out and McGrath was a cert for man of the match.
Or close to a cert, at any rate. He’d have had to fend off the challenge of 19-year-old Pádraic Maher to take it. Stationed at centre-back, big and bold and game as anything, Maher had done a job on Henry Shefflin throughout, keeping the great man scoreless from play and patrolling the skies above the Tipp half-back line like it wasn’t the Kilkenny half-forward line he was up against. Hold out just a little longer and he’d give McGrath a run for his money.
This was 2009, though. This was Kilkenny in full cry. You did not hold out against that Kilkenny. You did not pass Go. In those days, the way of it was the way of it and everyone knew the score. Dig your fingernails into the cliff’s edge for as long as you can but gravity always wins.
And so Kilkenny rattled off six points from there to the end, as against one from Tipp – a last-chance swing for fences from Brendan Cummins that went over the bar late on when a goal was needed. Kilkenny won the day, which was the style at the time. Tipp weren’t heartbroken though – they went away with a heightened sense of what was possible against Brian Cody’s immovable objects.
You would have had precious few takers walking out of Semple Stadium that day that almost a decade later, McGrath and Maher would still be waiting on their first league medal. Brendan and Bonner Maher both came off the bench that day too and, despite picking up every other accolade in the game since, they’re still waiting on the one that would round out the collection for them.
Tipp have been to four finals since they last won a league in 2008 and lost them all. They’ve coughed up a quarter-final to Clare and semi-finals to Cork and Waterford. In 14 knock-out league games over the past decade, they’ve won seven and lost seven. Kilkenny have played 14 in that time too – they’ve won 11 and lost three.
“Kilkenny just knew how to win the close ones better than we did,” says Shane McGrath. “It’s hard for me as a Tipp person to say that but maybe it’s just as simple as that. They knew how to win the bigger games. This is the 10th time they’re meeting in finals between league and championship over the past decade so obviously the two counties are close to each other in terms of ability. But Kilkenny are 7-2 up in terms of wins in those finals. So that tells you the edge they have on the days when it really matters.”
As league teams go, there’s actually been nothing between them. In the past 10 league seasons, Kilkenny and Tipperary have had pretty much identical records – as long as you take knock-out games out of the equation. Stick with 56 group stage games apiece and they’re more or less a statistical tie – 73 points from a possible 112 for Kilkenny, 71 for Tipp. For comparison, next on the list in terms of points won (top flight only) are Waterford on 53. Galway have amassed 50 in that time, Cork have put up 45.
Point is, Kilkenny and Tipperary are by many streets the most consistent league teams of the past decade. Indeed, if you wanted to really make a meal of it and bend the numbers to suit your stated view, you could even say that Tipp have taken care of their business in the spring in a more diligent manner than Kilkenny. Cody’s side occasionally have had to take a quick pitstop in a relegation playoff to maintain their top-flight status; Tipp haven’t come close to dropping down a stream.
But nobody buys any of that. And nor should they. League is league and winning is winning and Tipperary haven’t done enough of it when it mattered most. If they lose tomorrow, they will join Clare, Limerick and Wexford in losing five league finals on the bounce. They will have done it in the shortest space of time, however.
Clare lost five in a row across a 20-year span between 1985 and 2005. Wexford (1982-’93) and Limerick (1972-’83) spread their five final defeats across 11-year periods a decade apart. Cork and Kilkenny have lost four finals on the spin before but Tipp are the only county to do it twice. Flip it any way you like, it’s a trend they need to put manners on.
“From a Tipp point of view, the stats are bad in these finals,” says Eoin Kelly. “Kilkenny definitely have the edge – they have it over us when it really matters. I can definitely see some of the older Tipp lads referencing that before they go out. You’re still going down to Kilkenny’s back yard and if they come out with a win it will be massive. Really massive. I see some people have Tipp down as favourites and I can’t figure it out.
“Look at the stats. Our record in these games is terrible. It’s one from six going away back to 2003. If they don’t win on Sunday, it’s one from seven. That’s a lot of Tipperary hurlers over the past 15 years who don’t have a league medal. They have everything else, just not this.”
You could dig all day for a pattern to these defeats but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Tipp have lost four finals in a row, three of them have been to Kilkenny. Last year’s systems failure against Galway is the outlier – for the most part, they’ve been involved in breathless games against a team for the ages and just not come out on the right side of the knife edge.
That 2009 game was theirs and then it wasn’t. They needed to kick on after McGrath’s goal but Kilkenny were masters of the world at that stage. Eddie Brennan popped up miles from home to land a score from his own 65 just when Kilkenny needed something different. In an odd sort of way, Tipp took heart from the fact that Kilkenny needed to be that outrageous to beat them.
“That 2009 final was big for us,” says Kelly. “We got plenty out of it. Paudie Maher outhurled Henry Shefflin that day and I’d say for the rest of his career, Kilkenny probably didn’t put Henry on Paudie again. So you could probably say both teams got plenty out of it.
“But maybe Kilkenny just learned more. We came out of it encouraged by having played well against them, our young lads especially. They learned more about their match-ups going forward – Henry went on John O’Keeffe for the 2011 final, which would have been a different proposition to Paudie Maher. But we got confidence from that 2009 league final, definitely.”
“It was big for us because they were at their peak,” McGrath agrees. “They will go down as one of the greatest teams ever and this was them at their best. It was a big confidence booster for the team first of all and for individual players on top of that. We came away knowing we could mix it with the best on the big day. Obviously, we ended up meeting them in an All-Ireland final later that year and they just came out on top again.
“But those games fed into the following year and the All-Ireland we won. We actually probably played better in ’09 than we did in 2010 but we just got the few goals in ’10 that got us over the line. But those defeats and the way we played in those games drove us on, definitely, to get it done in the end in 2010.”
They were made men after that All-Ireland and nobody was going to quail too much over a failure to add a league anywhere along the way. Still, they’d have taken one if it was going. But the only place it was going was Kilkenny, who are looking to add their fifth in 10 seasons tomorrow. And a fourth at Tipperary’s expense.
In 2013, Michael Fennelly plundered a couple of goals, JJ Delaney and Lar Corbett walked on red cards for some off-the-ball rassling and Kilkenny had come out in the end by 2-17 to 0-20. The following year’s final was yet another epic, decided after yet another bout of extra-time by a genius one-two combination from TJ Reid and Richie Hogan.
“By that stage, we were meeting each other so much that every game was a classic, nearly,” says McGrath. “That 2014 game went to extra-time and TJ and Richie just came up with this quick routine on the sideline to win the game. We were a couple of points up just two minutes beforehand. That’s how tight it was.
“But that’s how good they were in tight spots. It just goes to show the mentality they had. I think our lads have developed that in the last few years, they have that mentality now themselves. They can win these big games.”
Winning them against Kilkenny is, was and always will be the test. Kelly remembers the year of the big snow, when their league opener against Cody’s team was postponed twice in early February. By the time they got around to playing them, they were the dogs who had worn themselves out wearing down the chain.
“We were mad to get playing them again after we lost the ’09 final to them. So we arrived the first day, ready to go, game called off. Second day, revved up again, game called off again. I think even for the third day, people might have been let in free after all the cancellations.
“But we were mentally drained after it, having gotten ourselves up for three different games before finally getting to play them. We put more into that league match than we did for nearly any other one I can remember outside of a final. And I’d say it had a knock-on effect that year. We didn’t make the league final even though we won that game when it was eventually played. And I’d say it even snowballed into the championship because we were sucker-punched against Cork below in Cork. The focus on Kilkenny was huge.”
Always is, final or no final. Tipperary would want to win one of these soon, all the same. They don’t sit above their neighbours in many tables but their 19 league titles still outstrips Kilkenny’s 17.
That’s the sort of stat that means nothing until it means something. Lose tomorrow and it will begin to mean a lot.
Lost league finals in a row
Clare (1985, 1987, 1995, 2001, 2005)
Limerick (1972, 1973, 1974, 1980, 1983)
Wexford (1982, 1984, 1990, 1991, 1993)
Tipperary (1931, 1938, 1940, 1948)
Tipperary (2009, 2013, 2014, 2017)
Kilkenny (1947, 1950, 1954, 1957)
Cork (2002, 2010, 2012, 2015)