T.J. Reid played a star game for Kilkenny. Photo: Pat Moore
What a difference a few weeks make! On February 19, Kilkenny were down in the dumps after a hollow showing and bad beating suffered against Clare.
This week the pep is back in the step of Kilkenny hurling folk. Thurles on March 11 could yet turn out to be a significant milestone in season 2017.
All-Ireland champions, Tipperary, weren’t expected to be the perfect hosts in terms of offering anything soft when Kilkenny came a calling in the Allianz National Hurling League on Saturday.
When the Premier County thundered into an impressive lead of 2-7 to 1-2 after 21 minutes it appeared as if their All-Ireland final 2016 superiority over the Cats was about to be continued.
But new look Kilkenny, with experienced hands like Cillian Buckley, T.J. Reid, Padraig Walsh and Walter Walsh ripping into every challenge and standing back from nothing, and new hands like Paddy Deegan, Jason Cleere and Conor O’Shea hitting a level of performance suggesting they too have the nerve and verve for the high wire act, thundered back.
Through sheer heart, courage, stubbornness even and with an abundance of hurling skill they effected a nine point turn around to lead by one with the final seconds ticking away.
Then with 69 minutes and 21 seconds showing on the clock Tipp sub Steven O’Brien raced up the right wing towards the town end goal to post the equaliser from 25 metres. The old house was shaken by the cheer of relief and joy from the home fans.
This was hurling’s version of ‘Saturday Night Fever’, all action, all rocking from start to finish, and featuring a gripping final waltz that had everyone in the stadium - in the press box too - screaming for the final whistle that would proclaim a draw.
After O’Brien’s equaliser the fierce action rolled on and on, for too long actually. Tipp worked two pops at the Kilkenny goal, but John O’Dwyer missed with both.
There were enough incidents and close calls during the closing five minutes alone to form the main body of a report. On 65 minutes Kilkenny goalie, Eoin Murphy, blocked a bullet from 14 metres from John McGrath.
The ball ran loose, but a hasty first time pull by full-forward, Seamus Callanan from virtually in front of goal fired the sliotar wide across the face of the posts.
Around a minute later Cillian Buckley raced through at full pace from midfield at the other end, and in full stride pointed the Cats in front from 35 metres (3-14 to 2-16).
The Kilkenny backs, who were magnificent playing off instinct and with the heart of lions more than learned ways, chased everything, tore into everything. John McGrath lashed an effort against an upright and Callanan posted another wide before O’Brien saved the day.
From whence they have come in a few weeks, Kilkenny astounded. And you know, it is not Kilkenny’s form in the Brian Cody era to leave such a powerful performance like an oasis in the hurling desert. They usually build on promising efforts like this.
The view of the horizon looks much more enticing this week than it has for a month or more.
For me, Buckley was wonderful; faster than everyone, covering ground like a gazelle, hurling the game of a giant. T.J. Reid, who bagged two good goals from magnificently struck penalties, was back to his best hard working days of 2015, and his contribution was all the more valuable for that.
Walsh moved from full to centre-forward/midfield around midway in the first half, and he choked what was a serious Tipp advance at the time. He is hurling well, very well, and he is using his physique to the best effect as he suggests he wants to be a leader now; no longer a follower.
The Padraig Walsh experiment at full-back? Through sheer will the Tullaroan man is making things happen.
His opponent, the deadly Seamus Callanan may have just returned to action and might have been a bit off as some of his poor striking of frees would suggest, but Walsh did a top job. He will thrive on this commanding showing.
And thrive was the thing with Conor O’Shea at corner-back. A good showing against Cork was followed by an even better one here. He can be left to find his way, but in the belief he is capable of making it.
You would think in ordinary circumstances that the onerous position of centre-back was too much of an ask for young Jason Cleere. Yet when called in there from the wing to take over from Shane Prendergast he blossomed.
Twice during the second half one saw him make slight adjustments of his position under threatening dropping balls; both times holding the position. We were impressed, as we were with his general hurling.
Paddy Deegan captained the team. He thrived in the helter-skelter, the chaos that often ensued in his area.
It took a fighter simply to survive, but his contribution soared above that. If there is a first rung on the inter-county ladder, he is on it now.
This was foot to the floor, full speed ahead hurling from start to finish. Tipp had first use of the wind.
Barely beyond two minutes the ball was in the Kilkenny net. A long clearance from Ronan Maher fell to ground near the middle edge of the visitors square.
A would be covering defender slipped. McGrath scooped the ball into the net. A quick lash 1-1 from T.J. Reid, the goal an exquisite finish, and it was level, 1-1 each before five minutes had passed.
Tipp, with Ronan Maher and Padraic Maher commanding in defence, and Sean Curran and Dan McCormack not far behind further up field, appeared more threatening on the offensive than the opposition. Points from Callanan, McGrath, McCormack and Callanan again edged them 1-5 to 1-1 clear by the 12th minute.
A second Kilkenny point from Cillian Buckley didn’t halt the flow of play. That was followed by a questionable scratching of a second effort from the Dicksboro man on 17 minutes, the effort being ruled wide after the referee consulted with an umpire.
Tipp powered on. Noel McGrath placed Sean Curran for a lovely point from midfield. Then on 21 minutes they goaled, Niall O’Meara registering after an exquisite delivery from the ’40’ by John O’Dwyer.
The gap was at its widest - 2-7 to 1-2. Tipp’s pace and movement up front was frightening.
Kilkenny hung in and hit back. T.J. Reid pointed a free following a foul on Colin Fennelly. Then he added a second, made by the now much more involved Walter Walsh. T.J. completed the hat trick in the 25th minute (2-7 to 1-5) to keep the chase strong.
A silly foul on Alan Murphy when contesting a ball that was going dead earned Kilkenny a penalty. T.J. buried it, with the ball placed a metre back from the ’spot’ before taking a run and blast (2-7 to 2-5).
Tipp upped the ante again, but they weren’t flattered by an interval lead of 2-11 to 2-7.
The dogged chase for parity took Kilkenny until the 55th minute, by which stage Richie Hogan had dug his way into the match and was a real force in it. Another penalty goal from T.J., this time after a foul on Liam Blanchfield squared it at 3-11 to 2-14.
The next four scores were equally divided before Tipp missed a golden chance of a goal, shooting their sixth of 10 second half wides. Moments later Cillian Buckley popped over the lead point for the Cats, which was the first time they led.
The burst to the line was beyond frantic, but absolutely gripping for all its imperfections. Hurling! It gladdened our heart yet again.
And now we look forward to Dublin and Parnell Park. Can’t wait!
SCORERS: Kilkenny - T.J. Reid (3-5, two goals penalties, four points frees); Richie Hogan (0-4); Cillian Buckley (0-3); Walter Walsh (0-2). Tipperary - Seamus Callanan (0-6, three frees, one 65); John McGrath (1-2); Niall O’Meara (1-1); Sean Curran, Dan McCormack (0-2 each); Padraic Maher, Noel McGrath, John O’Dwyer, Steven O’Brien (0-1 each).
Tipperary - Daragh Mooney; John O’Keeffe, James Barry, Michael Cahill; Tomás Hamill, Ronan Maher, Padraic Maher; Sean Curran, Michael Breen; Dan McCormack, Niall O’Meara, Noel McGrath; John O’Dwyer, Seamus Callanan, John McGrath. Subs: Kieran Bergin for Breen; Jason Forde for McCormack; Seamus Kennedy for Cahill; Steven O’Brien for N. O’Meara.
Kilkenny - Eoin Murphy; Paul Murphy, Padraig Walsh, Conor O’Shea; Conor Fogarty, Shane Prendergast, Jason Cleere; Paddy Deegan, Cillian Buckley; Richie Hogan, T.J. Reid, Colin Fennelly; Alan Murphy, Liam Blanchfield, Walter Walsh. Subs: James Maher for A. Murphy.
Referee - J. Owens (Wexford).
Attendance - 14,763.