Kennedy relishing being back in the thick of things
By John Harrington
Mention the 2016 All-Ireland SHC Final to Seamus Kennedy, and his immediate reaction is that it “feels like a lifetime ago”.
That was the year he came from nowhere to establish himself in the Tipperary team and experience the ultimate high of beating old enemy Kilkenny in the All-Ireland Final.
Back then a Tipperary team with a good age-profile looked capable of replacing Kilkenny as the dominant force in the game, but that’s not quite how it would pan out.
A one-point defeat to Galway in the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final ended the defence of their title, and then last year they suffered the ignominy of failing to win a single match from four in Munster.
Such an early exit from a Championship lauded by all as one of the greatest ever was a hard one to stomach.
“It was a shock to the system, it was,” said Kennedy. “Went on a sun holiday for the first time really like and I was in Italy and there was matches on and you're kind of going, 'I actually don't like this'.
“It was weird I suppose. I think we all felt that to be honest with you. That has given us an extra bit of drive this year and kick that we didn't want to be in that situation again, it's not a nice place to be.
“When we came back training there was, you knew there was an extra, we didn't want to be in that situation again where we were looking in at these great games.
“Everybody spoke last summer about how unbelievable the hurling championship was but Tipperary were nowhere to be seen in the wonderful summer of hurling.
“It probably grated on us a small bit to be honest. We were fairly determined not to let that happen again.
“Thankfully the start we got in Munster really set us up for the year, a good start. It's got us back to another All-Ireland final.”
Much like the Tipperary team as a whole, Kennedy has experienced mixed fortunes since that 2016 All-Ireland Final win.
The wing-back’s form dipped a little in 2017, and then last year his reinvention as a full-back wasn’t quite an unqualified success.
His first Championship start this year didn’t come until the Munster Final against Limerick when Tipperary suffered a chastening defeat, and he lost his place again for the subsequent All-Ireland Quarter-Final victory over Laois.
It was something of a surprise then when he was drafted back into the team for the All-Ireland SHC semi-final against Wexford, but he fully justified the recall.
When Tipperary were reduced to 14-men in the second-half Kennedy was one of their most forceful players, doing a lot of dirty work in defence to turn over ball and then using possession wisely when he won it.
After a frustrating couple of years, it was a hugely satisfying day for the St. Mary’s, Clonmel club-man.
Not just because Tipperary showed such character and ability to win the match, but because it felt like such a significant moment in his own hurling career.
“Yeah, it did, to be honest,” said Kennedy.
“It probably is easy to get pissed off or whatever like, but you just have to keep your head down and hope the chance comes your way and you know thankfully the last day I got the nod like and I was delighted.
“I probably found out during the week that I was going to be playing and anytime you do get the nod to get the jersey and get to play like it's an absolute privilege.
“It does make it extra special in the manner that we did win, absolutely, there's no doubt about that, but, again, like, it's just an absolute privilege to be able to play and probably appreciate it a bit more maybe this year when I've been in and out of the team as you said. It was very pleasing yeah.
“We went five points down, went three points down so but I think the most pleasing thing was we never pushed the panic button, we kept trying to do the right thing and especially I suppose when John (McGrath) got sent-off, we seemed to value the ball and value possession a lot more and really worked the ball to the shooters and to the lads up front.
“That was very pleasing to be honest that we just kept chipping away at Wexford until the very end and thankfully got there.”
One of the biggest improvements that Tipperary have made as a team this year has been their use of possession.
Instead of launching the ball long and hoping their forwards can do the rest, now they’re better at working it short until it reaches someone in the middle third who has the time to get his head up and deliver a pass of the sort of angle and trajectory that gives an inside forward the best possible chance of winning it.
When they were reduced to 14 men against Wexford it was more important than ever that they weren’t careless in possession, and Kennedy’s use of the ball was especially judicious in that second-half.
More than once he had the presence of mind to cut back towards his own goal to find the space needed to deliver a pass to a colleague rather than just put his head down and try to drive out with the ball and possibly into trouble.
He has also played Gaelic Football at senior county level for Tipperary, and the instincts he developed in that code seem to be serving him well in hurling now that possession is more valued.
“I think the football training and playing, being from Clonmel I probably played far more football than I have hurling growing up, it definitely has benefited me,” said Kennedy
“In football if you give the ball away you're not going to get it back for 10 minutes.
“You definitely do value possession a lot more in hurling now.
“Maybe without even thinking about it, it's something I do. Definitely there is a crossover between the hurling and football.”
Perhaps Tipperary’s season ended so early last year because they were a little bit slower than other teams in adapting to how the game was evolving.
This year, though, they’ve shown they can move with the times, and are right back where they want to be again.
“Hurling has definitely has changed,” said Kennedy. “If you're setting up against a team like a Limerick or Wexford that value possession so well and have this running game or Limerick have a short passing game, if you give the ball away, they're going to punish you.
“We definitely do value possession a lot more but I think benefits us too.
“If we're getting the ball into the right areas to deliver into our forward line, I think our forward line is as good as what's out there, if we can get it into the right areas, they're going to do damage.
“It is up to us to value the possession, get it to the right areas and deliver to the lads.”