AFTER A flawless performance on the field, it was no surprise that Eoin Larkin kept up Kilkenny’s impeccable show with his speech after lifting the MacCarthy Cup, writes Trevor Spillane.
Starting with the cupla focail, Larkin also had strong words of recognition for colleague Michael Rice, who missed the game through injury. It was a nice speech, something he had prepared just in case.
“You have to have these words ready, to be prepared for everything,” smiled Larkin. “I was just glad that I got to use them.”
There was a noticeable difference in the change in tone since the last time the Kilkenny People spoke to Larkin in a dressing-room. Memories of that defeat to Galway in the Leinster final in July were banished as, this time, there were celebrations and silverware on show.
“There is a huge difference between then and now,” he agreed. “That experience of losing is something nobody wants to feel - winning All-Irelands is what you aim for every year, so the mood has changed an awful lot since July.”
It wasn’t just the Leinster final that the Cats needed to improve on, Larkin reckoned. There were other days where they failed to shine throughout.
“We were disappointed in ourselves after the Leinster final,” he reviewed. “After that we only performed for half of the quarter-final against Limerick - we only hurled in fits and starts against them - while we didn’t seem to get going in the first half of the semi-final with Tipp.
“It was the same three weeks ago against Galway, so we wanted to give a good performance over the full 70 minutes.”
Like a number of his colleagues, the captain believed he hadn’t performed to his full potential in the drawn game against the Tribesmen. “I felt I wasn’t at my best, that I hadn’t played as well as I could have,” was his honest appraisal. “Most of the forwards felt like that, which is what I feel brought out the performance we gave in the replay. You couldn’t fault anyone out for what they gave against Galway this time around.”
Of course, the Cats were helped by a fast start this time, something they were keen to do.
“The last two times we played Galway in the championship they got the quick start while we were left chasing the game,” he said. “This time we consciously went out with the aim of making a good start ourselves. We wanted and needed to do that, just to see what they would be like when the pressure was focused on them.
“We got a couple of points early on and stayed that bit in front of them by half-time,” he added. “Thankfully we were able to keep that up into the second half.”
Larkin and his colleagues really did turn the tables on Galway. This time they did all the pressing.
“We wanted to impose ourselves on the game, to try and be the team asking all the questions of the opposition,” he said. “We were lucky enough to get the scores that we did as it could have been different - Galway got two goals in quick succession, but we responded well, getting a point after each of them which made a huge difference. We went in four points up and continued that form in the second half, tacking on a few more points before scoring the second goal.”
That interval lead changed the mood of the game. For the first time in their three championship meetings, it was advantage Kilkenny at the break.
“It was huge to have such a lead,” Larkin pointed out.
“Remember, we were four points down the last day coming back into the dressing-room (Kilkenny trailed Galway by 1-8 to 0-7 at the interval in the drawn final) and behind by double digits to them in the Leinster final, so it was a huge difference to come in with the lead in our favour. It gave us the confidence to drive on again in that second half.”
They duly drove on, never letting Galway reassert themselves on the game.
“We knew the first 10 minutes of the second half was going to be the crucial part of the game,” he said. “Galway were always going to throw everything at us in an effort to get back into the game but thankfully we held out and fired over the crucial scores.”
Both Kilkenny midfielders and all six starting forwards were on the scoresheet on Sunday. The captain agreed that of all the days for everything to click into place a team couldn’t pick a better one than an All-Ireland final.
“That’s all you hope for,” he said. “All you want is for everyone to play to their best on All-Ireland final Sunday, the biggest day in the hurling year.”
And on the biggest day there is no better honour than being the first man up the steps to collect the Cup. So, what was it like for Larkin to be that man?
“It was a bit surreal, to be honest,” he said. “I was delighted to have the honour, but in a strange way part of me wanted to stay on the field and celebrate with the lads!”
Given that his club are celebrating their 125th birthday this day, it was apt that Larkin should represent James Stephens with such distinction on hurling’s biggest day.
With Larkin at the helm, the city club has now provided the county team with a captain on nine occasions. Paddy Larkin was the first to do so in 1936 and again in 1938. Mick Crotty (1970), Phil ‘Fan’ Larkin (1976) and Liam Chunky O’Brien (1977) had the same honour also, but it wasn’t until a certain Brian Cody came along in 1982 that a Village man lifted the MacCarthy Cup as captain.
Jackie Tyrrell bridged a 24-year gap when skippered the Cats to national glory in 2006, a year after Peter Barry lifted the Bob O’Keeffe Cup in Leinster. Tyrrell was the Village’s last county team leader until this season. “I was delighted to accept the captaincy,” Larkin finished. “To captain the Kilkenny senior hurling team is a huge honour, but to captain them to an All-Ireland title won’t sink in for a long, long time.”