Monday 29 May 2017

Thurles thriller leaves Waterford wondering what might have been

Kilkenny 2-19 Waterford 2-17

Colin Fennelly celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal during last night’s clash with Waterford in Semple Stadium. Photo: Daire Brennan. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Colin Fennelly celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal during last night’s clash with Waterford in Semple Stadium. Photo: Daire Brennan. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

In the end, again, Kilkenny found a way through, like experienced miners digging through a tunnel with the oxygen running low, knowing they needed to see light soon.

With two minutes to go, and Kilkenny without a score in 13 minutes, TJ Reid had a chance to extend their diminishing lead to two points. He skewed the shot, his normal accuracy failing him, reflective of the rising tension. In the next play Jamie Barron sent over the equaliser and Kilkenny were vulnerable.

Kilkenny's Michael Fennelly leaves on a stretcher after picking up an injury. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Kilkenny's Michael Fennelly leaves on a stretcher after picking up an injury. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

But that is being said a while now and being vulnerable, and being beaten, are two distinctly different realities. The impressive young tyro Liam Blanchfield, one of three changes, ended up with three first half points and he won two more frees which Reid converted. The last of those frees was in instant response to Barron's equaliser and when Reid added a second free in stoppage time that seemed enough.

There was more. Maurice Shanahan, effective on being introduced, popped over a score from play, his second, and there was still time for Waterford to force extra time. They had one more chance. Shane Fives won a free and the normally reliable Pauric Mahony had a perfect line with his strike but Eoin Murphy collected with a catch above the crossbar. There were five minutes of stoppage time played, two minutes over the allocation announced, when Richie Hogan nailed his fourth point of the day.

It was cruel luck on Waterford who again brought a brilliant level of skill and intensity to the play, setting up as they had six days earlier and showing no fear of Kilkenny's reputation. Austin Gleeson scored an inspirational goal after four minutes and the game had four green flags with only 20 minutes played. Jake Dillon slammed home another and Colin Fennelly, a constant target man for Kilkenny throughout the first half, scored two with deadly finishing, rediscovering his best form.

Kilkenny were expected to make changes. In his Irish Independent column Henry Shefflin estimated that Kilkenny lost 11 positions in the drawn match, which made their escape even more remarkable. Almost every Kilkenny player took the field with his reputation on the line. Waterford made only one change, Colin Dunford losing his place to Stephen Bennett.

Waterford manager Derek McGrath expresses his point of view to linesman Colm Lyons. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Waterford manager Derek McGrath expresses his point of view to linesman Colm Lyons. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

A further series of positional switches meant that every Kilkenny line of the field was altered except full back. Eoin Larkin's inclusion, having come on six days earlier, didn't cause any surprise, with Johnjo Farrell paying the price for an indifferent performance. The others were more left field. Aside from Blanchfield, a minor All-Ireland medal winner two years ago, Mark Bergin (27) also got a run but didn't have the same impact and was taken off.

Kieran Joyce, a beneficiary when Kilkenny made changes after drawing the All-Ireland final two years ago, lost his place and Conor Fogarty started centre back where he'd moved after Joyce's substitution the first day. There was a total revamp of their midfield, the new double act featuring Reid and Hogan, and Michael Fennelly started centre forward. Fennelly left the field after 58 minutes with what was later revealed to be an Achilles injury, making his involvement in the final unlikely.

After an absorbing opening half, Kilkenny, playing with the breeze, led 2-10 to 2-7, scoring the last three points with a late blitz in stoppage time. They went through 11 minutes of the first half without a score during which time they conceded 1-3, but finished the half the stronger. Dillon's goal in the 20th minute, a brilliant finish from Stephen Bennett's pass and earlier assistance from Kevin Moran, put Waterford two points in front, the game's fourth goal in an incendiary opening phase. The first was a wonderful finish from Gleeson, when set up by Michael Walsh.

Fennelly's goals in the eighth and 11th minutes, both involving Walter Walsh, rattled Waterford and Kilkenny were happy to rain ball down the middle, with Barry Coughlan having a hard time trying to contain the Kilkenny full forward. After Shane Bennett's point had Waterford three points clear Kilkenny dug in and found a renewed energy. From there to the half time whistle they outscored Waterford 0-8 to 0-2.

Colin Fennelly of Kilkenny scores his side's first goal during. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Colin Fennelly of Kilkenny scores his side's first goal during. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

At times it got heated and Brian Cody had words with the referee James McGrath when the teams were going off the field at half time. His protests continued in the second half, prompting an exchange with Derek McGrath at one point.

Ten minutes into the second half Waterford trailed by five points, 2-14 2-9, but Shanahan helped them turn it around, and Gleeson scored a wonderful solo score that began a slow comeback. Pádraig Walsh shot two fine scores for Kilkenny but the scoring began to dry up and by degrees Waterford clipped away at the Kilkenny lead until Barron levelled the match. Had they got extra time, who knows? Maybe they would have found a new momentum. Instead Kilkenny hung on and were relieved to.

Kilkenny got the improvement they sought but there is still scope for more as they await the outcome of today's second semi-final. Rarely in Cody's 18 years of management have they been tested as severely and exhaustively as by Waterford over the last week. The trouble for whoever faces them in September is that they will be hardened by the experience, underling as it does how ferocious their competitive instinct and appetite remains. In those 18 seasons under Cody, at his most animated last night, they have reached the final day of the championship on 15 occasions, a truly remarkable record, and are now, chasing a third All-Ireland in succession.

Waterford leave the championship with their honour restored after the shattering defeat in the Munster final. The evidence of the last two days is that their day will come. That overdue championship win over Kilkenny, last achieved in 1959, will come too. They finished the season playing the hurling of their lives.

Scorers - Kilkenny: TJ Reid 0-7 (0-6 fs), C Fennelly 2-0, R Hogan 0-4, L Blanchfield 0-3, P Walsh 0-2, E Larkin, M Fennelly, W Walsh 0-1. Waterford: P Mahony 0-9 (0-7 fs), A Gleeson 1-2, J Dillon 1-0, Shane Bennett, J Barron, M Shanahan 0-2.
Kilkenny: E Murphy; P Murphy, J Holden, S Prendergast; P Walsh, C Fogarty, C Buckley; TJ Reid, R Hogan; W Walsh, M Fennelly, E Larkin; M Bergin, C Fennelly, L Blanchfield. Subs: L Ryan for M Fennelly (inj 68); JJ Farrell for Bergin (60), K Kelly for Blanchfield (73).
Waterford: S O'Keeffe; S Fives, B Coughlan, N Connors; C Gleeson, T. de Burca, Philip Mahony; J Barron, K Moran; M. Walsh, A Gleeson, Pauric Mahony; Stephen Bennett, Shane Bennett, J Dillon. Subs: M Shanahan for Stephen Bennett (47 mins); P Curran for Shane Bennett (54); T Devine for Dillon (62).
Referee: J McGrath (Westmeath).

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