Limerick end hurling year with high hopes for future
Limerick 0-17 Kilkenny 0-11
Five minutes from the end Kilkenny moved to within four points of Limerick, who were eight points clear at the three-quarter mark, and the ground felt the merest jolt.
Except for the opening minute, Limerick led for most of this All-Ireland under 21 final and rarely betrayed any sense of vulnerability. They had the stamp of champions-elect. Hurling, though, always carries the possibility of a twist.
Alan Murphy landed five second-half points from dead balls to keep Kilkenny in the picture, just about, admittedly, after the match favourites led by seven points at half-time having played with a strong wind. Murphy's fifth score brought Kilkenny as close as they were to get. Kilkenny's threat proved a false alarm and the exceptional Aaron Gillane hit a defiant point in response, his seventh of the day, and with a minute the substitute Oisín O'Reilly, having been hooked twice, refused to give up on another Limerick possession and struck the final blow, the last score of the day.
Limerick had the added gear if they needed it. They weren't at their best in this match but they didn't need to be. They were still plenty good enough.
A strong swirling wind ruined prospects of a classic finale to the hurling season but that did little to devalue Limerick's latest underage triumph. Their supporters spilled on to the field to acclaim their second under 21 title in three years, which compensates for the disappointment of losing the minor final in 2014 when they entered the match against Kilkenny as favourites but didn't produce the form of which they were capable.
Kilkenny fought and tried valiantly in the second half when with the wind to find a way back into the match, having gone in at half-time 0-4 to 0-11 in arrears. But the quality wasn't there. They managed only four points from play over the hour and their key men were ineffectual, with Liam Blanchfield making a limited impression at wing-forward before being moved to full-forward late in the match to try and salvage the match with goals.
Limerick have already blooded some of these players in their senior team and more will now surely follow next year, starting with the National League where they will be playing in Division 1B. It has been too long since Limerick last won a MacCarthy Cup and while the transition from under 21 to senior is difficult - who knows better than Limerick? - they will earnestly hope that this is the dawn of something greater.
They had leaders throughout the pitch and one of those, Cian Lynch, didn't see out the match, going off injured in the 39th minute after a hefty challenge left him needing attention. He came back to his feet but clearly wasn't right and Conor Boylan replaced him soon afterwards. At centre-back, Kyle Hayes was what you have come to expect: a powerful physical presence, dominant in the air, and they had a big performance from Robbie Hanley in the middle of the field.
Peter Casey scored three points from play and Ronan Lynch hit three frees from great distance, two from near his own '45 when with the wind in the first half. But their best player was Gillane who scored seven points, five from play, one more than Kilkenny managed from play in total.
Limerick have proved themselves the best team in the under 21 championship and had already slain Tipperary, Clare, Cork and Galway. Kilkenny tried as hard as they could to make life difficult for them. In the first half facing the wind Eddie Brennan's side needed to stay in the game and not let Limerick too far in front. They managed it to some extent.
Even with Limerick puck-outs landing in the opposing full-forward line, Kilkenny managed to keep their goal safe. There were a few half-chances when ball broke around the square but Darren Brennan had no save to make in the opening half and only one in the second when substitute Conor Boylan struck a low shot into the ground which Brennan diverted over the bar. Unable to breach Kilkenny's defence for a goal, Limerick relied on conceding little at their own end and hitting enough points.
By the 46th minute, Limerick had stretched their lead out to ten, 0-14 to 0-4, and while Kilkenny outscored them 0-7 to 0-3 over the remainder, they hadn't the quality to really hurt Limerick even with the wind. Unlike the minor final three years ago, Limerick made sure they delivered this time.
Scorers - Limerick: A Gillane 0-7 (0-2fs); R Lynch 0-3 (0-2fs); P Casey 0-3; C Lynch, B Nash, O O'Reilly, C Boylan 0-1. Kilkenny: A Murphy 0-5 (0-4fs, 0-1 '65); S Walsh 0-3 (0-2fs); B Ryan, L Blanchfield, J Donnelly 0-1.
Limerick: E McNamara; S Finn, D Fanning, D Joy; R Lynch, K Hayes, T Grimes; C Ryan, R Hanley; T Morrissey, B Nash, C Lynch; P Casey, B Murphy, B Nash. Subs: C Boylan for Lynch (inj 39 mins); A La Touche-Cosgrave for Morrissey (47); O O'Reilly for Murphy (53); L Lyons for Nash (62).
Kilkenny: D Brennan; M Cody, C Delaney, N McMahon; H Lawlor, J Cleere, T Walsh; L Scanlon, B Ryan; L Blanchfield, S Morrissey, R Leahy; J Walsh, J Donnelly, S Walsh. Subs: A Murphy for Morrissey (25 mins); P Lyng for J Walsh (half-time); M Keoghan for B Ryan (42); D Mullen for Leahy (45).
Referee: P O'Dwyer (Carlow)
Sunday Indo Sport