Joey Holden played a star match for Kilkenny
"The more things change, the more they stay the same”.
That well-worn phrase that was doing the rounds between various media outlets in the run up to last Sunday’s National League final between old foes Kilkenny and Tipperary.
April has barely begun, and already we have had various appetisers to May’s highly anticipated championship jousts. Kilkenny and Wexford, Tipperary and Limerick, to name a few.
Now it was time for arguably the most enticing of all - Kilkenny and Tipperary. While this final would not affect how their championship campaign went, it was their last chance to lay down a marker that they meant business in the All-Ireland series.
We have seen over the last three or so years, various teams win the National League title, most notably teams that have sprung up from Division 1B.
The last time Kilkenny and Tipperary were in the National League final together was 2014 (for those of you wondering, Kilkenny won by a point).
They did not meet in the championship last year at all, with their sole encounter being an epic draw played out in Thurles.
That is the unique thing about this rivalry. It does not matter if Kilkenny and Tipperary have not met each other in a while, the mere mention of each other’s name or sight of their jersey is enough to raise their own performance ten-fold.
There had been a lot of talk in the lead-up to this match about Tipp’s urgency to win a league title. Looking at it through the eyes of a Tipperary supporter or player, it was clear to see why.
The last time Tipperary won the League was 2008, which just so happened to be the last time they overcame Kilkenny at this time of year.
That was ten years ago. Since then Kilkenny have beaten their old foes in the 2009, 2013, and 2014 league finals. It is not a pretty statistic from Tipperary’s point of view.
If we were to look at 2018 on its own, the round four encounter between the two sides probably left Tipperary manager Michael Ryan scratching his head.
While he had introduced some new faces, such as Cian Darcy, and Ger Browne, he still had the likes of Brendan Maher, Patrick Bonner Maher and Michael Breen, players who would have had the experience and ability to beat Kilkenny.
Yet Kilkenny still emerged victorious, giving the Cats a psychological advantage ahead of a possible championship meeting later in the Summer - something else Ryan would not have wanted.
As for Kilkenny, being in a league final was real bonus territory for them. After giving a gutsy performance against Wexford, they came into the game brimming with confidence. Kilkenny supporters wondered would the team persist with the same running and passing style they have teasing out over the last couple of weeks.
Tipperary are a traditional team, so Kilkenny could have afford to revert back to the usual 15 on 15 formation. The game provided a lot of questions that had yet to be answered, but Sunday would resolve all.
With Kilkenny playing against the wind in the first half Tipperary started the brighter. Jason Forde got some points from a free and from play before a T.J. Reid scored from a sublime sideline to get Kilkenny.
Eoin Murphy got a monster free from his own half to further bolster the attack. It has to be said however that the bedrock for Kilkenny’s victory was down to the defence, in particular Joey Holden and Paddy Deegan.
They really kept their markers quiet, not an easy task when you consider the quality of Tipperary’s forward line. Coupled with their ability to clear the ball efficiently, it really gave the Kilkenny forwards plenty to work with.
T.J, Reid, who many thought would be hampered by a knee injury he sustained early in the first half, was simply flying. A knock would be no problem for the Ballyhale man - he simply dusted himself off and tacked on three wonderful points, much to the delight of the Nowlan Park crowd.
Richie Leahy and Martin Keoghan also made their mark on the game with a point each. Tipperary, to their credit, were going nicely in the first half. Jason Forde got the game’s first goal in the 21st minute, after an assist from John McGrath. Padraic Maher made his presence known in the half-back line, keeping the Kilkenny defence on their toes with good deliveries.
As is the nature of Kilkenny and Tipperary games, the two sides were even throughout the first half, but Tipperary led the Cats by a whisker at the break.
The visitors would not have time to ease into the second half. Walter Walsh, spotting a gap in the Tipp defence, won the ball and flicked it past Daragh Mooney to get Kilkenny’s first goal.
The full-forward position really suited Walter. His size, pace and ability to win the hard ball caused near panic in the Tipperary defence.
Spurred on by this new development, the Kilkenny forwards really grew into themselves.
One of the most encouraging signs of Sunday’s victory was Kilkenny’s ability to work in packs and turn over ball. It is one of the characteristics Brian Cody demands of his players and it was very much on show in this game.
Padraic Maher, who had been the conductor of Tipperary’s defence was very much curtailed in the second half, and that was down to Kilkenny’s workrate. They made it very hard for Tipperary to get any sort of ball into their forwards, and when Tipperary did get the ball out of danger it was always directed to one player, Jason Forde.
Tipperary seemed one-dimensional on Sunday, particularly in attack. They did not get the most out of what they have, and looked short on ideas on how to play the ball into their forward line.
While it did appear that they had most of their championship team on show today, it is very much back to the drawing board for Michael Ryan and his players.
Make no mistake about it, this was a very, very assured and impressive performance by Kilkenny on Sunday. It will no doubt have Brian Cody smiling long into the week as he casts an eye towards the Summer ahead.