What a thrilling couple of games we had in Nowlan Park last Sunday.
Cork and Galway went to extra time, and I use the word thrilling despite Kilkenny being poor because the excitement in the last 14 minutes of their clash with Tipperary was edge of your seat stuff.
Tipp were highly impressive from the throw-in. They beat Kilkenny easily in the 50/50 battles.
Cait Devane gave Davina Tobin a torrid time of it and Kilkenny persisted with the pairing. Tobin being one of their best defenders I suppose they had to. And Davina did get on top in the second half.
Tipp were dragging Kilkenny all over the place and with Kilkenny player marking you’d wonder if that game plan was the best strategy. They were at sixes and sevens, and maybe to hold their back six and drop back their lines might have crowded things out a bit and stopped the onslaught.
Kilkenny at the other end were playing deep, it seems to be the norm now to play a two-player full-forward line.
Yet when the ball went forward the space did them no good, Tipperary were still winning the runs and Kilkenny didn’t score from the eleventh minute to the 31st, a converted penalty by Denise Gaule.
As can happen when teams are playing snappy hurling and lording it over their opponents, the tendency to take too much out of the ball creeps in and that’s what Tipp did which led to the penalty.
It was a soft enough penalty, Gaule winning it herself when Aoife McGrath, coming in from the left, spread the hurley across her.
McGrath had pressurised Gaule well and the penalty came against the run of play. That score kept Kilkenny in touch, 0-10 to 1-3 behind at the break, with 1-1 coming from placed balls.
Kilkenny’s attacking stats soared in the second half, but they were five points behind with 10 minutes remaining.
When the run of play looked as if Tipperary would see it out, you can never underestimate All-Ireland champions.
It takes one moment to turn a game. Gaule’s pile driver should have been dealt with by keeper Áine Slattery.
Her attempted catch was a disaster, and it spurred Kilkenny on. From the puck out Katie Nolan finished a second goal and it was hard to believe that it was level on sixty minutes with four minutes additional time called.
With free-takers of the calibre of Gaule and Devane discipline was going to be the key factor.
You could physically see the droop in Tipp’s shoulders after those two goals, emotionally the energy was sapped out of them. With that came the tiredness and two frees given, won by Gaule, which were duly converted, and it was game over.
“I’ll be very honest,” said Kilkenny manager Brian Dowling afterwards.
“I didn’t see it coming. We were struggling everywhere really. I thought in different patches after half-time we pushed on a little bit, but Tipp got the upper hand on us again.
The one thing I’ll say is these girls have huge character. They don’t like losing matches and we just stayed going.
“We found some way to win it today. I don’t know how we did it. Players like Denise Gaule really stood up there and was counted, won a few crucial frees. You win the free but then she has to put the ball over the bar as well which showed the leader she is.
“We’re disappointed with our performance and last Saturday as well. Limerick deserved to beat us last Saturday and Tipp were probably the better team today.
“It is the league; we want to keep improving. We know that performance won’t be good enough next Sunday night in Croke Park but we’re there. We’ve a lot to learn. It’s good to be learning winning rather than losing. The league is about finding out about our players and we’re learning a lot.
“There’s huge character in this team and maybe that belief has come from winning (the All-Ireland) last year.
“We know we’re not playing as well; we’re not hitting big scores in games and that’s something we need to improve on but another week to go to the league final and we’re looking forward to that and then look forward to the championship.”