Tipperary’s quest to put their 2009 Nowlan Park defeat to bed
Ten years ago their rivalry ignited in two league meetings, memorable for different reasons
Kilkenny’s Michael Rice and Shane McGrath of Tipperary contesting a loose ball during the League Division One final in 2009. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Kilkenny go to Thurles on Sunday to face Tipperary. It is the latest renewal of the most persistent pairing in top-level hurling over the past 10 years, during which time the counties have contested five All-Ireland and four league finals.
Ten years ago that rivalry ignited in two league meetings, memorable for different reasons, in Nowlan Park and Semple Stadium.
It was the second season for the management of Liam Sheedy – now in his second tour of duty with Tipperary – Eamon O’Shea and Michael Ryan. The initial season had gone well with a first league, followed by a first Munster title in seven years even if an All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Waterford had been a downbeat conclusion.
The following year, 2009, the county was ready to kick on and make progress, which it would do but not without hitting a significant speed-bump halfway through the league.
In the first league meeting with Kilkenny there were a couple of issues at stake. Tipperary had beaten the All-Ireland champions in the previous year’s league semi-final and after the following summer’s championship they were clearly a rising threat.
Kilkenny always seemed alive to such challenges. They won by 17 points, 5-17 to 0-15, the only sign of mercy that it could have been a lot worse; at half time Nowlan Park had given the home side a standing ovation as they led by 20.
John O’Brien captained Tipperary in the league final, and remembers how the performance that day was influenced by the catastrophe just six weeks previously.
“We always felt that we could match them on a given day – but probably more individually than collectively. We would all be confident against our direct opponent on a particular day. In 2008, we had a few decent wins and it was only the start of Liam and Eamon coming in.
“A year later we probably thought we were going well enough, and that game really was an eye-opener, and I think it was because not only were we trying a few new players but any of us playing that day were totally shut out.
“We were actually embarrassed at getting beaten by so much – we had won Munster the year before and felt that we were on the up, so that really brought us back to earth.
Dished it out
“I remember when we met in training the following week. Usually you’d look forward to the next game and say ‘let’s get out and do this’, but straight away we focused on reaching the league final because then the only way to get over that embarrassment was to go up against the team that had dished it out to you.”
There was still work to do to if they were to get another chance, but they responded well to beat Dublin, Galway and Limerick to end up second in the table behind Kilkenny on the same number of points. It was an important recovery because that year the format of the league had changed so that the final would simply be between the first two counties in the Division 1 table.
O’Brien’s memory of how Tipperary got to the final remains stuck on fast-forward.
“I couldn’t even tell you who we played after that because it was all about getting back there. We knew that we needed the work rate because it was something that Kilkenny always had.
“We were probably confident we could match them skills-wise but after Nowlan Park we clearly understood that if we can’t match them physically and in terms of work rate, we’ve no chance.”
The physicality was there, no doubts. A ferocious shoulder from Micheál Webster on James Ryall dislodged the ball for a fourth-minute goal by James Woodlock. O’Brien added a second goal a few minutes later but after a blazing contest and extra time Kilkenny prevailed, albeit by just a score of 2-26 to 4-17.
The significance of the Tipperary performance was that it erased what had gone before and opened up a future that encompassed the 2009 All-Ireland final, in which Kilkenny had to come late to deprive them, and then, a year later, the definitive display of that team and its management, the 2010 final that derailed their opponents’ attempt at five-in-a-row.
For O’Brien the episodes of 10 years ago, in their own very different ways, had laid the foundations of a memorable triumph.
“After that game [the 2009 league final] we got satisfaction even though we’d lost our title and were very disappointed at that, but we knew that it put the Nowlan Park defeat to bed and set us up for the championship.
“It’s like a boxer who gets beaten in a fight. The first thing he thinks of is a rematch against that boxer. It’s no use fighting someone else!”