WHEN Tipperary and Kilkenny met in the league in Churls back in February, Kilkenny were ahead by four points after 45 minutes when Tipperary got a run on their arch-rivals and began to press their boot hard on Kilkenny’s throat.
Over the following 20 minutes, Tipperary created 11 scoring chances to Kilkenny’s two. When Tipp had edged ahead by 0-15 to 0-13 with just five minutes of normal time remaining, the game was firmly within their control. Tipp were playing with a swagger and confidence and had built up a seemingly irresistible momentum.
Kilkenny hadn’t scored for 20 minutes and were desperately craving a spark to ignite a late charge. They finally found it. Mossy Keoghan staunched the bleeding with a point before Richie Leahy levelled the match within a minute.
As the sides traded punches down the home straight, Tipp got their noses in front by one point with just 90 seconds of added time remaining. But that is all Kilkenny have ever needed to rescue a desperate situation.
They won the puckout and Richie Hogan landed the equaliser. As a scramble ensued in the dying seconds, Padraic Maher touched the ball on the ground, and Eoin Murphy nailed the free.
Tipperary were unlucky. On another day, that free against Maher would not have been given. Maher even argued afterwards that it wasn’t a foul. Tipp played some great stuff. They were right there at the end but the way the game played out still showcased a very defining trend in Kilkenny-Tipperary matches in recent years.
When the sides met in last year’s league in Nowlan Park, Tipperary threw everything at Kilkenny in the second half when chasing down a seven-point lead. Tipperary seemed to have momentum at the right time but when the heat was at its most intense in the last six minutes, Kilkenny did what has become encrypted into their DNA under Brian Cody.
Just after Michael Breen had levelled the match in February 2018, TJ Reid won the subsequent puckout before laying the pass off to Richie Leahy for the lead score. Billy McCarthy and Breen had opportunities to score the equaliser in the closing moments but Kilkenny turned over both possessions.
When the sides met in the 2017 league in Thurles, Tipperary had Kilkenny over a barrel. They pounded them in the first half but Kilkenny chipped away and eventually reeled them in for a draw.
Another defeat to Kilkenny six months ago underlined how hard Tipp still find it to beat their greatest rivals this decade. In their 18 league and championship meetings since the 2010 All-Ireland final, Tipperary have won just three of those games.
That 2010 All-Ireland final was expected to be a turning point in the relationship, but it wasn’t because Kilkenny continued to dominate it.
Tipp’s 2016 All-Ireland final victory though, was deemed to be more of a landmark moment than the 2010 final win. Tipp slayed the dragon that afternoon by nine points, while their age profile looked far more positive than a Kilkenny machine which was slowing down.
After appearing to shove Kilkenny into a shallow grave in that 2016 final, Tipp were expected to keep trampling down on Kilkenny ever since. But they haven’t. Tomorrow’s All-Ireland final will be their first championship meeting since 2016 but Tipperary have still failed to beat Kilkenny in their last four league games in the meantime.
Apart from the physicality and intensity Kilkenny always bring, their composure, and decision making under pressure, has been a defining factor in their modern history with Tipperary.
Kilkenny will play on that again now but, is that really a factor for Tipperary anymore? Many of the questions that would have been asked of Tipperary prior to the Wexford match were firmly answered in the last 20 minutes three weeks ago, when Tipp were trailing by five points, and reduced to 14 men.
Those questions had been lingering since the Munster final, when Tipp were bossed and bullied and outclassed by Limerick. The doubts resurfaced after the All-Ireland quarter-final against Laois but Tipp blew them away when the need was greatest against Wexford.
The sending off of John McGrath allowed Tipp to create that extra space in their attack but the way in which Tipp were able to run the ball in the second half, with forwards peeling off into pockets, and defenders finding men in space was the most graphic illustration of how different this team is from 12 months ago.
That’s a testament to excellent coaching but Tipp’s comeback was a triumph of heart, character and spirit as opposed to any tactical adjustment that allowed them to dictate the terms in the last quarter.
Tipp players stood up everywhere. The Tipp half-back line of Brendan, Padraic and Ronan Maher were immense, having a combined 34 possessions, and winning a combined 11 puckouts, with Ronan Maher securing five of those.
Noel McGrath was brilliant too, having more possessions than anyone else (20), scoring four points from five shots, and having another scoring assist.
Seamus Callanan also showcased his genius and leadership qualities again; from just seven plays, Callanan scored 1-2 and had a hand in three more points.
The Tipperary bench also made a massive contribution. Prior to the All-Ireland semi-final, the Tipp bench had contributed just 0-4 in six games but Jake Morris, Willie Connors, Mark Kehoe and Ger Browne matched that total in just 22 minutes.
Tipp ended with 1-28. If tomorrow is a high scoring game, Tipp will win. Tipp have the greater firepower but, once again, they have to prove that they can face down Kilkenny. And beat them.