Column: Shane McGrath on hurling
By Shane McGrath
“Sport is like a card game, you can bluff, fold or win big, it’s all how you play the game”
‘Phew!’ I have no doubt that was the over-riding emotional feeling of Tipperary and Kilkenny managers Mick Ryan and Brian Cody after the final whistle went in both All-Ireland Semi-Finals last weekend.
Like expert card players, neither team tried to fold or bluff their way to victory. They knew they had the strongest decks and they won and now it sets up the ultimate game. Poker Faces at the ready for the next few weeks.
Kilkenny will feel more battle-hardened and prepared after their 150 minutes of edge of the seats hurling that had it all. Tipp, on the other hand, will have plenty of points to chat about over the next fortnight or so in team meetings. But isn’t it great to have another game (and what a game!) to prove themselves and work on those flaws.
This time last year Tipp gave a similar performance and were knocked out, but now they have the opportunity to achieve the ultimate for any Tipp person…beat Kilkenny in an All-Ireland Final. And trust me when I say the feeling is mutual down on Noreside!
Over the next few weeks not a whole pile of physical work can or will be done. This week is about recovery, getting the suits sorted, the hotel, where will the girlfriends and wives leave their bags the night before…all that jazz.
Next week a couple of ball sessions, maybe an internal match and then before you know you’re into game week. Technically and physically you’re set, it’s all about the tactical and mental side of prep now for the biggest game of the year. We’ll look more in depth into that in the coming weeks, for now let’s look back on that whirlwind of a weekend for the greatest game on earth.
Kilkenny v Waterford
Kilkenny are the masters of doing just enough in these tight games and getting over the line. They’re so good at it they’d probably even beat a Russian lad in the boxing in the Olympics!
The game had it all, four brilliant goals which probably left coaches around the country scratching their heads wondering, “So will we tell them to finish it low or high?!” Intensity, hooks, tackles (which Kilkenny won 59-51) individual moments of brilliance, a winner and unfortunately a loser.
Once again Mr. Cody pulls the rabbit out of the hat with the rabbit in this case being Liam Blanchfield. He scored 3 points from play and worked tirelessly for the team. The game ebbed and flowed and took on an opposite role from last week with Kilkenny leading the way this time and Waterford trying to claw their way back into the game.
A crucial period for me was the 10-15 mins before half time where Kilkenny dominated, scoring 7 points to Waterford’s two (both from frees). One of those Waterford frees came from a great catch by Brick the Immortal, what a leader this man is for Waterford.
Kilkenny showed glimpses of their real class throughout and right before halftime epitomised this for me. Richie gets the ball half-way, pings a ball to hand to Mark Bergin, he catches it, throws it out to Walter Walsh near the side-line and over the bar. Class.
On the resumption KK started the brighter and you could understand if the heads dropped for Waterford and they felt they hadn’t anything more to give. But not this team, not this group. They drove on and brought it back to two points 2-16 to 2-14 and then Michael Fennelly has to go off.
61 mins gone, could this be their chance? But Kilkenny don’t do panic. Cody has a word in Lester Ryan’s ear, Jonjo Farrell comes on for Bergin and freshens the thing up.
Credit to Waterford, they came at them again and Jamie Barron who had a huge game leveled it. 69 mins gone. Waterford fans are thinking, ‘This is it’.
But, no, once again Kilkenny go a point up from a free and then the drama of Pauric Mahony’s free for Waterford and that catch from Eoin Murphy. Any outfielder in baseball would have a statue erected for him in a game of such importance if he made it.
Murphy busts out with the ball, taking a few generous step on the way, ball down the field, Waterford have it again, surely now, but no…Paul Murphy snaps the ball and is the definition of fire in the belly and ice in the head. He could have easily drove the ball over the Killinan End down into the square in Thurles but instead he spots Richie in space and he seals the deal. Game over.
What Waterford have learned from these two games is worth years of experience to them as a group but for the group to prosper from this they must hold onto Derek McGrath and his backroom team. Change is as good as a holiday in some cases, but most certainly not in this scenario. They have developed a great bond among players and management and need to keep that going to achieve the ultimate for themselves because I feel this group can do it.
Tipperary v Galway
Just like last year, there was the bare minimum between these two teams on the scoreboard and the world of difference in emotions in the two dressing rooms. This time it was Tipperary on the right side of both equations.
Winning games despite not playing all that well is a great thing. God knows we’ve lost enough of them in Tipp playing much better, but what an opportunity for them to prove things right the next day and give a team performance.
Galway started off once again like last year at 100 miles per hour and took the game to Tipp. Conor Cooney’s goal was brilliant. Watch it back. He used James Barry as a cover to shield the ball from Darren’s sight and by the time Darren saw the ball it was too late. A bullet. Bang, in the back of the net as another pundit would say!
But, Tipp responded well. Mikey Breen picked off two very good points, Seamie Callanan kept the scoreboard ticking over with frees. Enter David Bourke at midfield and he became the conductor of the orchestra. I said it before, this guy is one of the best sticksmen I have seen and he proved this again on Sunday.
If he had more outlets up front who knows what could have been. They were not the same forward unit we saw last year, Mannion and Whelan both taken off, Flynn a shadow of the player he was last year, and, of course, Joe going off injured. Even on a quiet day Joe takes watching. The Cooneys stepped up and delivered, but it just wasn’t enough.
Bonner was back to his Bonner best, he’s in the army, is used to hardship, and he went to war on Sunday for Tipp. Another plus for Tipp was that we didn’t have to depend on Seamie to get us over the line and that we really do have a strong set of forwards who are willing to take on the scoring responsibilities.
John McGrath stepped up to the plate, coolness personified, lays off a perfect pass to Bubbles and what a finish from the man. 99 per cent of players at county level would have cut back out to the left but Bubbles is in that 1 per cent bracket of special players and he finished it brilliantly from the tightest of angles.
Then the great instinctive pass from Seamie to John McGrath and the composure he showed beyond his years to finish it for Tipperary’s second goal. That sealed it because Galway never pushed up and left one on one against James Barry in hope more than anything that something would come off it.
Tipp have lots to work on but the joy is they have 3 weeks to do it and not 12 months again like last year. Galway’s two goals were unforced errors from Tipp players, not rising the ball in the first half and a stray handpass for the second. Their overall intensity and work rate must improve as well as the stats show Galway once again won the tackle count 54-33. But they won and semi-finals are for winning.
It’s the grand finale most have predicted but perhaps few would have expected at different times on Saturday and Sunday. For the 5th time in 6 years its Kilkenny v Tipperary. Every neutral in the country is licking their lips, ringing their buddies in different county boards looking for the tickets, playing the whole you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours to try and get that golden ticket for the biggest show on earth on Sept 4th.
Now more than ever I’d love to be playing, but that’s sport.