Champions: Kilkenny players celebrate winning the 2011 All-Ireland hurling final. Photographs: Billy Stickland and Colm O’Neill/Inpho
SPORT REVIEW 2011: Kilkenny set down an early marker with their league win over Tipp in Thurles and rounded off the year by reclaiming their All-Ireland crown in impressive style
THAT TIPPERARY’S triumphant 2010 was regarded as a beacon of novelty is as neat an illustration as any of the grip exerted by Kilkenny on hurling over the past decade. This year proved a more direct demonstration of the same phenomenon.
The year began and ended in the same way: with a comfortable win by Brian Cody’s team against their successors – and ultimately predecessors – as All-Ireland champions.
Was there any hint of danger for Tipp and new manager Declan Ryan in the low-key defeat under lights in Thurles, as the counties who rule contemporary hurling met in a box-office curtain raiser to the 2011 national league?
A slightly disappointing crowd, even allowing for the persistent rain, of less than 10,000 turned out to witness a renewal of the modern game’s defining rivalry.
In retrospect there were certain things to note: Tipperary’s listlessness, the subdued atmosphere and Kilkenny’s perennial motivation to treat every year as a new leaf – without altogether forgetting any slights on the previous page.
It’s easy to say that everything began and ended as we knew it would during this year but that is to overlook a cheery linking narrative in which there was novelty and the optimistic sense of a new departure.
This probably peaked with the league final in May, which saw Dublin win the county’s first national hurling title in 72 years with an exhilarating victory against Kilkenny, the cosmetic damage done, as it so often is, by a dam-burst of scores at the end, as the winners realised the scale of their liberation and celebrated accordingly.
Conal Keaney’s return to the hurling fold had a major impact on Anthony Daly’s team and he had starred in the defeat of All-Ireland champions Tipperary. The confidence and physicality of the Dubs augured positively for a memorable championship.
From Kilkenny to Kilkenny is unreliable as a plot because it omits that time in pre-summer when the Leinster champions did not look assured of recovery even if sane counsel knew that they wouldn’t be shipping too many 12-point defeats during the summer.
The counties would meet again in the Leinster final. Dublin had ticked one of their most urgent boxes – a summer win against top opposition – and if Galway had the sort of year which made that categorisation at least debatable, the manner in which the winners rode the rough terrain of losing Tomás Brady to a dreaded cruciate injury was impressive.
The provincial final defeat by Kilkenny was comprehensive and for Dublin it was riddled with all of the old insecurities. It was easily the most disappointing event of an otherwise memorable year and led manager Anthony Daly to remark succinctly that his team had been “beaten in the parade”.
Tipperary had maintained a rising trajectory in the latter stages of the league, just missing out on final qualification, but in as sparkling a display as April ever stages they tore Galway apart in Salthill and looked set for the summer.
Their high point came in the Munster final when, assisted by Waterford’s new defensive direction, they ran in seven goals with Lar Corbett helping himself to four.
Dublin ticked the other box for a successful season by beating Limerick (encouragingly revived by Donal O’Grady in what was to be his only season with them) to reach a first All-Ireland semi-final in decades. Their performance there spoke a great deal for the team’s improvement and self-belief but maybe also said something about Tipperary.
Unlike in the previous two years when they had burst from the traps in the semi-finals, the champions laboured and in that unconvincing victory were maybe hints that the new management mightn’t be able to supervise the smooth, upward gear shifts perfected by their predecessors.
Kilkenny weren’t prey to that sort of fluctuation.
Henry Shefflin returned from a second cruciate injury as driven and influential as ever and in defender Paul Murphy they produced the rookie of the season. Richie Hogan asserted himself as a goalscorer in big matches and Michael Fennelly continued to be the game’s dominant centrefielder.
Cody’s cohorts looked hungrier in pursuit of an eighth All-Ireland in 12 seasons than Tipp did, attempting to put MacCarthy Cups back-to-back for the first time in nearly 50 years.
There’s no doubt that the force is waning within Kilkenny but with no major retirements in the offing and the competitive landscape as barren as ever apart from a crestfallen Tipperary, there’ll be no lack of confidence in the champions’ camp about their prospects of a successful defence of their crown.
Elsewhere there was a first Fitzgibbon Cup in nine years for UL after a last-gasp winner against local rivals LIT, a dramatic All-Ireland club campaign by Clarinbridge – including a breathtaking semi-final defeat of De La Salle after extra time and a big comeback in the final against O’Loughlin Gaels, culminating in a comfortable win.
There were fireworks in the Munster under-21 championship with Cork showcasing the talent of All Star footballer Aidan Walsh in epic matches against defending champions Tipperary and their successors, Limerick.
Dublin harvested the plaudits by reaching both minor and under-21 All-Ireland finals but Galway reaped both titles, the latter with a team and management that are to get their chances at senior level after Anthony Cunningham’s appointment as the new county manager.
Other new managers included the St Finbarr’s pair of John Allen, once again following in Donal O’Grady’s footsteps – this time in Limerick – and Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who not for the first time has laid his legendary status in Cork on the line to salvage the shipwreck of the county’s senior hurling fortunes.
Hopes for a more vibrant championship in 2012 will be easily fulfilled