Whatever happened to semi-finals being for the winning and to hell with the quality? Nobody told hurling. Yet again, the best games of the summer have come in the process of winnowing four teams down to two and though we are left with the old firm of Kilkenny and Tipperary playing out their fifth All-Ireland final of the decade, you’d be hard-pushed to find too many seen-it-alls claiming to be bored by the prospect.
Tipp came out the other side of a Wexford MRI here, surviving a closing half-hour that they had to play out with 14 men after John McGrath saw a second yellow. Four minutes after McGrath walked, Lee Chin skittled in Wexford's second goal to push them into a five-point lead with 50 minutes in the clock. Oblivion.
This journey is about this group of players. I am fortunate to be involved
Five points down and a man down, Liam Sheedy’s side had every reason to fold their tents for the day. That they didn’t – and instead outscored Wexford by 0-12 to 1-2 the rest of the way – gives them every reason to imagine they have what it takes to face down Kilkenny in three weeks.
“Ah stop,” said Sheedy smiling when we mentioned Kilkenny to him afterwards. “Ask me tomorrow. Or Tuesday.”
With 61,825 in Croke Park to see it, Tipp came out with a 1-28 to 3-20 victory to their name. It means that Sheedy has been in charge of Tipp for four seasons across two spells a decade apart, with three of them culminating in an All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. The score at the minute is one apiece. Three weeks and 70 minutes to break the tie.
“Look, this journey was never about me,” Sheedy said. “This journey is about this group of players. I am fortunate to be involved and overseeing a wonderful team with a wonderful backroom team, and you cherish days like these. Some days it doesn’t happen for us and it doesn’t go well, but irrespective, that character I have in this dressing room and within this team, I’m just hugely, hugely proud of.”
Wexford will be sick about this one for months. In so many ways, it was up there with the very best displays they have given under Davy Fitzgerald. The 3-20 total they put together is one they've only beaten under him three times, twice against Laois and once against Offaly. It would have won every championship game they've played in his three years apart from the 2017 Leinster final – and even then it would have drawn that one.
They did everything they had to, right up until they didn’t. A game that had been level seven times got blown apart in those five minutes between McGrath’s red card and Chin’s goal. A five-point lead should have been a moat around their castle from that point on. Instead, it took Tipp only seven minutes to construct a workable drawbridge. Five rat-a-tat points on the bounce and it was a level game again with 10 minutes to go.
“We did enough of stuff to nearly get over the line,” said Fitzgerald afterwards. “I just feel the sending off, you’d think it would work for you, it actually didn’t. It allowed Tipp more space and they got to avoid our sweeper a good bit, they played smart. I feel our half forward line retreated too deep. I was trying to get them to get out to midfield so we could stay tuning the ball, when we ran the ball there was only one winner in that game and it was just very hard to keep doing it.
“And whether it got into the boys’ heads that when we had the lad sent off they just went a bit too direct, a small bit too direct for my liking. I think when we worked it short we were incredible through the line but, in saying that, you have to admire Tipperary’s resilience, they never gave up and fair play to them that’s what hurling is about. My hat is off to them even though I’m absolutely so disappointed.
Few defeats can have tasted as bitter in Wexford mouths. This was there for them, unquestionably
“I think they just got the momentum at the right time. There’s times in games where you get a kick and you keep going from it. We probably got ours a small bit too early they got it at the right time and they are a team, they’ll pick you.
“We had discussed before the game if we stand one yard off them we are dead. In the first half we didn’t stand off, we had them pinned, we had them pinned. I think we defended a small bit more when we got up five points instead of staying attacking and staying tight. I couldn’t be more proud of them though.”
Conor McDonald, who couldn’t have given more, got in for a second goal on the hour mark, to push Wexford three points clear again. It meant that at different stages over the course of the game, Wexford enjoyed leads of three, four, five and three again. Tipp never led by more than two and until injury-time, they’d only been ahead for three minutes of the second half. Few defeats can have tasted as bitter in Wexford mouths. This was there for them, unquestionably.
But ultimately, it was Tipp who prevailed. They overcame the sending off as well as three disallowed goals, the last one of them in particular a bad case of not allowing the advantage rule to play out. Though Sheedy carried the magnanimity of the victor afterwards, they had occasional cause to feel they got the sharper end of referee Seán Cleere’s judgments.
No matter. They are back in the final, back in Kilkenny’s embrace. Hang around long enough and eventually you become new again. An old-firm final seems a grand way to bring the decade to a close.
Bring it on.