THE feel good factor in Kilkenny shows no sign of abating even ten days on from winning our 33rd All-Ireland title. We can be sure, though, that the beginning of the knockout stages of the local championships this coming weekend will now take priority as clubs set out on what they hope will be a successful campaign.
After missing out on the five in-a-row dream in 2010, this year’s success was one of the sweetest ever. Of course it meant more to every Kilkenny supporter that our opponents were Tipperary. No-one, least of all Brian Cody, his selectors and the entire panel of players, would contemplate a successive All-Ireland defeat to our great rivals.
Without doubt the foundation for last Sunday week’s success was formulated behind closed doors. Kilkenny has long cherished an exceptionally close relationship with its supporters, but as we saw in 2010 the weeks leading up to an All-Ireland final can sometimes develop into a circus.
The decision to hold many of the pre-All Ireland training sessions behind closed doors was a sensible one. It was clearly vindicated by the team’s exhilarating display in Croke Park.
This year Kilkenny was a team on mission once the first ball was thrown in against Wexford. Last year’s defeat hurt badly, but the plans for 2011 were already being formulated before the Kilkenny party left the Citywest Hotel for Kilkenny on the Monday after the 2010 final.
Following a resounding defeat in the league final to Dublin doubts emerged that maybe the 2011 championship might just be one campaign too many for this great team. In hindsight that league final loss was a blessing in disguise as the players rediscovered their focus and appetite once the championship commenced.
This current Kilkenny team has an impressive track record of bouncing back from adversity. This year’s final was the ultimate test of the side’s character and for the first time in many years few pundits felt the Cats could reclaim the title.
It is understandable that Tipperary were favourites, but the tag rested uneasy on the shoulders of the outgoing champions. The character of this current Tipp side will now come under the spotlight as many questions were raised by the team’s display last Sunday week.
I wrote last week about the pre-match preparations by Tipperary. I cannot imagine any player heading out on to the Croke Park pitch to play an All-Ireland Final wearing a tracksuit top. Worse still, at least one player kept wearing his tracksuit in the pre-match parade. Tipperary can expect a sizeable fine for this indiscretion.
It is hard not to think that the sloppy pre-match preparation was a factor in Tipp’s poor opening quarter. Kilkenny were always going to start the game at a high tempo, so that should not have been a surprise to anyone involved with Tipperary.
Apart from the exclusion of 2010 Young Hurler of the Year, Brendan Maher, Tipperary lined out as expected. Playing John O’Keeffe on the vastly experienced Henry Shefflin was a gamble that ultimately failed. It might have been wiser to play Paraic Maher on the right hand side of the defence.
After 15 minutes Tipperary knew they had a struggle on their hands to retain the title. Their team was being out-fought and out-thought in every sector of the field. This was not how the final was expected to turn out for the team and its supporters.
The substitution of Shane McGrath at the interval was a huge blow to Tipp. McGrath shipped a hefty tackle (very legitimate I should add) from Michael Fennelly during the opening half that left him unable to continue.
John O’Brien was industrious in the second half and won some good possession, yet he was substituted. Pa Bourke looked particularly sharp, leaving Tipp supporters wondering why he did not start the game.
Perhaps the Tipp mentors could have been a bit more ruthless in their decision making as a few of the more established players were fortunate to last the full 70 minutes.
The wonder of this final is how Kilkenny were only ahead by four points at the finish. It was a nervous closing ten minutes for Kilkenny supporters, even if Tipp never managed to close the gap below the three point margin.
This year Kilkenny’s motivation was about exacting revenge for last year’s defeat. Next year it will principally be about four players and their quest for a ninth All-Ireland medal. Expect a few other good reasons to emerge next Summer.
Where now for Tipperary? Without doubt, the former champions have the ability to bounce back with the bulk of this year’s side and capture another title. A few new faces will be needed, but there is talent aplenty in the county.
Most of all, Declan Ryan and his fellow selectors must develop a ruthless streak in both themselves and their players. Winning an All-Ireland title does impact players in a variety of ways and it is always a challenge for the team mentors to bring everyone back down to earth when the new championship season comes around.
Tipp supporters were understandably disappointed at losing out to their neighbours and great rivals, but surely the team deserved a better turnout in Thurles when the players arrived home on the Monday night after the final.
Loyal supporters, as Kilkenny can attest, are as important as a 16th player. The Kilkenny County Board can also vouch for what it means to have so many loyal supporters.
I heard a few Kilkenny people in the past week discounting Tipp’s chances in 2012. I utterly disagree with such sentiments. Kilkenny were badly stung with the 2010 loss, so why should it be any different with Tipperary in 2012.
I bet you would get short odds right now on a fourth meeting of hurling’s greatest rivals in 2012!
Finally on the All-Ireland final, the free-flowing game demanded by both counties of referee Brian Gavin certainly materialised. The Offaly official has a track record of letting the game flow, but while this year’s final had plenty of physicality both teams played the game in a very sporting manner.
It was an easy afternoon for Brian Gavin, bar his little encounter with the hurley of Tommy Walsh!