It has been a Championship dominated by the dichotomy of stages. The desire of those so often left wanting has finally deteriorated the resolve of those usually found having in abundance. The domineering presence of consistency that has often made the months of June and July a formality now carry the burden of the first great casualty of the 2013 All-Ireland.
While the neutral may rejoice at the weakening prospect of a familiar champion, it was with a touch of sorrow that we watched Tipperary end their campaign on Saturday night. While their winning credentials have been waning in recent years, a July exit stole from them the commendation they duly deserve. They are by no means the Tipperary vintage of 2010 – or indeed the lesser flavours of 2009 or 2011 – but their unceremoniously early exit is betrayed by the two strong forces which lie to their east and west.
To the west stand Limerick. Their summer will not be determined by next Sunday’s Munster Senior Hurling Final, but beating Tipperary to arrive there was massively important. Sunday the 14th may well provide a platform on which expectancy may escalate for rarely does a Limerick hurling fan have such a quiet July in which to ponder their fate. To the east however stands another burdened by the exuberance of hungrier opponents. It was inconceivable that Kilkenny would go two games against Dublin and not emerge the victors. Yet Sunday will see Dublin in a Leinster Senior Hurling Final against an opponent that isn't Kilkenny for the first time since 1990. It would be no surprise - such is Kilkenny’s status in the game over the past decade - that if authorities within the G.A.A. ever deem a mass shake up necessary, any given player could be one day lifting the Brian Cody or Henry Shefflin Cup. For now it shall remain Liam MacCarthy, although it has been quite a while since he has appeared so vulnerable to so many grasping hands.
Of Saturday night’s match little can be said that will not reinforce the commonly held knowledge that Kilkenny vs. Tipperary will usually enable a fantastic match. TV3’s assessment of ‘Hurling’s Apocalypse’ taking place in Nowlan Park reeked of Sky’s incredulous ability to turn a battle for 11th place in the Premier League into a SUPER SUNDAY! However, the qualifiers are not generally reserved for a match of this enormity. It was no apocalypse, but both teams did play safe in the knowledge that it was very much sink or swim. Unlucky for Tipperary, some cats have no fear of choppy waters.
Individual performances from some of Kilkenny’s stalwart figures continually provoked Tipperary into foolish errors. Tipp’s eagerness and altogether improved performance since their trip to Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds was betrayed by the sheer number of fouls they committed. Seeing that Eoin Larkin must have been carefully watching Leigh Halfpenny for the past few weeks, the fouling would realistically prove fatal for Tipperary. This year was to be their resilient comeback in the wake of last year’s astonishingly comprehensive semi-final exit to Kilkenny. Now however they will begin 2014 with an even greater level of disappointment behind them. It is hard to assess when luck may swing back in Tipperary’s favour. Judging that Lar Corbett’s goal to bring Tipp alive in the first half would be followed by a match ending injury suggests that a summer of discontent may pass well into the depths of autumn and winter.
When one considers Kilkenny’s path from here, the profile of their opponents on Saturday did not prepare them for the form teams they may yet come up against. Tipperary operated off a sense of natural ability and experience, Waterford on the other hand will ravage for the scraps Dublin left over in their taking down of the big beast. However, Waterford are nowhere near where Dublin’s hurlers are currently residing in their stage of progress and a win for Waterford would suggest a malignancy in Kilkenny that would be far harder to shake off. The emergence of Henry Shefflin to Saturday’s match – albeit in the 65th minute – will be a cause of great hope for the Kilkenny faithful and of great concern for those who face them. Although he will rarely be as ever present again in a Championship season again, even a cameo performance on Saturday night was enough to manoeuvre a lead-establishing point for Richie Power to slot over in the 70th minute. Shefflin’s physicality was plain to see as he plucked a high ball from the Kilkenny sky, gracelessly shaking off Tipperary’s best efforts to stop him and slipping the play out to Power with a pass somewhat reminiscent of Will Genia’s precision pass to Israel Folau for the opening try of Australia’s recent test series. The burden of work will not lie on Shefflin’s shoulders this year but expectancy of what he can deliver and what he will deliver may exist on different plateaus. That being said, as Kilkenny move one step closer toward Cody and Shefflin’s tenth All-Ireland winners medal, the cats showed that they can be every bit the lion still, even if the instances are becoming less and less consistent.