By Kieran Rooney
ALL week, the talk was that Lar Corbett was potentially Tipperary's equivalent of Henry Shefflin. But it's one thing getting such a build up and quite another delivering. Yet, Corbett produced in the most spectacular fashion, scoring a hat-trick of goals to give outsiders Tipperary a 4-17 to 1-18 win over a Kilkenny team chasing their fifth successive All-Ireland hurling title at Croke Park on Sunday. The 81,865 attendance was treated to a fiercely contested and exciting final which was ultimately decided through Tipperary's phenomenal work rate and ability to score goals. Strange because normally Kilkenny win matches in this fashion. But this time they were faced by young opponents who matched and very often upstaged them in terms of intensity.
Crucially, Tipperary really believed they could win having come so close to beating Kilkenny in last year's final. Not many agreed going into Sunday's decider, the general feeling being that Kilkenny's experience would see them home after a tough contest. But in order to win four on the trot things have to go for you, just as they did when Kilkenny were awarded a disputed penalty in last season's decider. Eventually, as Kerry found out when they went under to Offaly when chasing five football titles in a row back in 1982, things do go against you.
Somehow the defending champions had seemingly managed to get Shefflin back in shape after damaging cruciate knee ligaments in the semi-final. Enough for him to impress in training and be named in the starting line-up for Sunday's clash. But Shefflin was to last just 13 minutes. When he departed injured in the semi-final against Cork they managed pretty well without him, comfortably seeing off their rivals.
Not this time. Tipperary, unlike Cork, got a good start and swarmed all over Kilkenny. The Cats just couldn't produce their normal fluent hurling under such pressure. Had Shefflin been able to stay on the field to provide inspiration, it undoubtedly would have helped. But, quite rightly, Brian Cody didn't use it as an excuse.
"Henry was just unlucky and defeat wasn't about losing him at all. The best team won the All-Ireland. Tipperary were excellent." admitted the Kilkenny boss. That's it. As disappointed many people may have been about a truly great team's failure to achieve a historic five in a row, Sunday was really about Tipperary.
After all, this was a Tipperary side which was written off following their 3-15 to 0-14 Munster quarter-final defeat by Cork. It's hard to believe how inept their defending was that day. But, like so many teams coming through the qualifiers in the All-Ireland football championship, they have improved in leaps and bounds. Most importantly, they have discovered the knack of making the best use of their opportunities. To score 3-17 and 3-19 to beat Galway and Waterford respectively in the All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-final was quite an achievement. But to accumulate 4-17 against Kilkenny is quite astonishing. Liam Sheedy, their manager, knew all the pressure was on Kilkenny in their quest to make it five in a row. He also knew that he had an outstanding panel which was strung by what they believed was some over the top criticism following their Munster quarter-final defeat by Cork. Could they win their first All-Ireland in nine years? Absolutely. What was needed was a good start and that was delivered in spectacular fashion.
They were 1-3 to 0-1 in front after 10 minutes. Corbett was responsible for the goal, taking a long delivery from Shane McGrath ahead of Noel Hickey to score with some ease. Tipperary seemed to be adapting better to the difficult wet conditions. Some beautifully executed points, one of which came from a long range free by goalkeeper Brendan Cummins, had them 1-10 to 0-7 in front approaching half-time. But somehow you knew that Kilkenny would respond. They did with Richie Power providing scoring 1-2. He took the goal superbly, taking a pass from Eoin Larkin before firing a low show past Cummins. Suddenly, the odds favoured Kilkenny, particularly as they would have the advantage of the wind in the second half and were now only 1-10 to 1-9 behind. All the more so when they drew level with a glorious sideline puck from TJ Reid in the opening minutes of the second period. How wrong can you be. Tipperary scored two goals and a point to move 3-11 to 1-10 clear within a dramatic three minute period. Eoin Kelly started it off with a point before a wonderfully timed pass from Noel McGrath gave Corbett the time and space to dispatch his second goal.
No sooner had the celebrations died down than Noel McGrath took advantage of some slack Kilkenny defending to sneak in for a third Tipperary goal. The upset was now really on but typically Kilkenny again bounced back, reducing the deficit to 3-15 to 1-17 as the game entered the closing stages. But, without Shefflin's inspiration, they are unable to break through an outstanding Tipp defence for the all important goal. Instead, that goal came in injury time at the other end with Corbett getting his hat-trick after once again cleverly peeling away to take a pass. At the finish Tiperary were a remarkable eight points ( 4-17 to 1-18) in front. No one would have believed it but the truth is that Tipperary were that good. They took on and beat Kilkenny at their own game. There were many other factors besides Corbett's contribution. The Tipp substitutes all played a part with Benny Dunne scoring their final point to at last put behind the memory of his dismissal in last year's decider.
Man of the Match Corbett and manager Sheedy were eager to state that the victory was the result of a huge effort on the part of the entire panel. "First week in June and a lot of people said we couldn't make it through the qualifiers. I think you saw today what this team could do." argued Sheedy. While Corbett insisted that the victory was about work rate, he also admitted the importance of scoring goals. "You have to have goals on your mind when you are playing Kilkenny.
"What do they have on their minds in the other dressingroom year in and year out? Goals. There was no point in going out and deciding that we will take the points."
[Tipperary's Conor O'Mahony celebrates with the Liam MacCarthy cup after the game. INPHO/MORGAN TREACY]
Kilkenny minors win title
THE Kilkenny minor team's 2-10 to 0-14 victory over Clare in the All Ireland Minor Hurling final provided some consolation for the Cats.
Like the senior match, this was decided by goals. Only this time, it was Kilkenny who got them. Had the brilliant Michael Brennan not struck twice in the second half, Clare could well be celerating a surprise success. They led 0-9 to 0-3 approaching half-time and Kilkenny were definitely in trouble. Importantly though the goal threat was always there and Brennan struck twice in the opening 12 minutes of the second half. He eventually finished with 2-2 to provide the inspiration for victory.
But huge credit must also go to Clare who were given little or no chance going into the game. But they dominated much of the encounter and were understandably desperately disappointed to lose out.
Three provinces win
LEINSTER were the only Irish province to lose out in the opening round of matches in the Magners League. They went down 22-19 to Glasgow away on Friday night while Ulster, Munster and Connacht all recorded home victories. Ulster must have been especially encouraged to have pipped the holders Ospreys 27-26 in an exciting encounter at Ravenhill. On Saturday, Connacht got off to a terrific start by trouncing the Gwent Dragons 40-17 at the Sprotsground. Munster were made to work harder against Italian newcomers Aironi at Musgrave Park but they eventually won out 33-17. The problems for all of the Irish provinces is that they are going to be well below strength for quite a few matches in this competition this season because of international commitments during a World Cup year. That was especially true of Leinster in their first competitive match under new coach Joe Schmidt. Even so, they should have managed better against a Glasgow outfit which was also under strength. After leading 16-6 with tries from Dominic Ryan and Isaac Boss, they fell away completely, only managing a penalty in the second half.
No such problems for Ulster who beat at strong Ospreys outfit. Stephen Ferris and Darren Cave secure tries and the rest of the points came from the boot of out-half Niall O'Connor. Flanker Niall Ronan was the hero for Munster with two tries but the main bonus for coach Tony McGahan was the way the scrum performed against a formidable Aironi front-row With full-back Felix Jones and prop Tony Buckely also going over for tries, Munster were able to pick up a bonus point. At the Sportsground in Galway, the Connach to coach Eric Elwood could not have asked for more. They too secured the bonus point for four tries. Out-half Ian Keatley contributed 25 points through a try, four penalties and four conversions.