WHAT a weekend to be in Croke Park, to be in such a fantastic stadium.
Sometimes we give out about the GAA and sometimes we can get very negative about it. Of course, we are all very Irish and prone to the negative, but for every man, woman and child the weekend gone by had to be nothing but positive.
To be in one of the top stadiums in Europe and to bring a crowd of well over 100,000 and witness one of the greatest games in the world, correction, THE greatest game in the world.
We thought we wouldn’t see a repeat of last year’s semi-finals but I think what we saw on Saturday and Sunday surpassed them. I know there are winners and losers in every game, together with a sense of joy and disappointment, but I think the real winners over the weekend were the supporters who attended these classic games.
They can count themselves very lucky that we have such wonderful young men to entertain us like they do year after year, and all for the pride and love of their county, showing their skill and character and athletic abilities, but above all their manliness.
To start with Saturday, Kilkenny and Limerick, there is an old saying ‘the old dog for the road, the pup for the puddle’. Well, there isn’t anyone longer on the road than the greatest of them all, Brian Cody — to have a team tuned to the last detail like he had is some reflection on the man. Also to his management team of Derek Lynn, James McGarry and above all Michael Dempsey.
Dempsey is with Cody a long time now and is the physical coach of this team. How he keeps turning them out every year in such great physical shape is a great credit to him, and he always stays out of the limelight - no flowery language out of this man or no attention-seeking.
A great sign of a manager like Cody is that he surrounds himself with quality people and high-quality players. To be back in an All-Ireland final again with this squad of players is one of his greatest achievements, and boy, has he had some achievements!
Look at the wonderful young players he has brought in — players like Hue Lawlor, Richie Leahy, that great warrior Paddy Deegan, who had an outstanding game Saturday evening, and of course John Donnelly, and the player with the greatest future of them all Adrian Mullen.
But when they wanted leaders in this game, I have to say, Padraig Walsh, Walter Walsh, Colin Fennelly and that great goalkeeper Eoin Murphy, all showed the way.
But the man that really stood up as he has always done is TJ Reid. All over the field, inspiring everyone and converting very difficult frees.
I said that Kilkenny would target the centre of the defence and that they would make a contest of every ball. They did not allow Limerick to build up any momentum. They got all their match-ups right — crowed midfield and put fierce pressure on Limerick’s Cian Lynch and on the Limerick half-forward line, and more importantly on their half-back line.
This is where they laid the foundation for this victory. Of course, the thing that is never in question is the skill of their players.
Fair play to Limerick they made a massive battle out of this as well and that is what you would expect from champions especially guys like William O’Donoghue, Aaron Gillane and more especially Graeme Mulcahy. What a workhorse he is for a guy of his size. He, more than anyone kept Limerick in this game with his work rate and intensity.
Limerick gave it everything and John Kiely can be very proud of the effort, but they can’t have any excuses as people usually do when they are beaten. I think Kilkenny were more than one-point winners. You can have all the tactics and all the stats from every game you like, but when you are in the trenches like this game was, it’s warfare and first man out wins.
The better hurlers nearly always win, and Kilkenny were that, no arguments.
We would all be happy coming out of Croke Park if Sunday’s game could be half as good as this one, but not alone was it as good, I think it surpassed it.
What a game! It had everything — except a referee, who made some very poor decisions during the game. He got some decisions right but a good number wrong which should not be happening at this level. This is my second time seeing this referee and I have to say I’m not impressed, then again, only my opinion, but I’m sure a lot of Tipperary people would have to agree with me, he made some very hard calls against them.
However, that did not take from the game. I believe Wexford will never get a better chance — five points up against 14 men — they were in the driving seat. Were they looking at the finishing line too soon?
In that position, you should be definitely winning the game. But they went completely out of it in the last 10 minutes, and I think there is a reason for that, they had done an enormous amount of running, especially in the first half and in any pitch that can knock a lot out of you, but it’s even more difficult in Croke Park where you need to reserve that energy.
Wexford did not do that and they paid the price. You cannot be in one half of the pitch one minute and chasing a ball at the other end the next minute - that takes it out of the legs.
Tipperary were more economical in that department and fellas like Noel McGrath, John O’Dwyer, Jason Forde and Seamus Callinan were able to take scores with a lot less effort. They showed great leadership when it was most needed.
But the man that stood up for Tipp all through the game, even when things were going wrong for them, was Ronan Maher.
Ronan was back to his best in this game. Brilliant in the air and came up with a couple of points as well.
Also, I think the Tipp subs, Ger Browne, Mark Kehoe, Willie Connors and Jake Morris all played a crucial role when introduced. Their fresh legs made a huge difference.
We are back to the old same again: Tipperary versus Kilkenny. The more things change, the more things stay the same!
Wexford had a great year, but they will have some very big regrets after this game. They were in the driving seat and they let go of the steering wheel.
But the real winner of the weekend was the wonderful game we call our own, hurling, at its best.