KILKENNY 5-15 OFFALY 1-14 THE clouds have lifted and Kilkenny can see the sun again. After two tortured years of finding the final barrier a shade too high for them, they soared to stratospheric levels in Croke Park yesterday and plucked their 26th Guinness All-Ireland title with the utmost ease.
Offaly's reputation as hurling's great survivors, who thrive in refusing to take `no' for an answer, made absolutely no impact on a Kilkenny team which were obsessed by an unstoppable determination to avoid slipping into the history books as the first side to lose three consecutive All-Ireland finals.
That driving momentum underpinned their entire approach ever since they reached the final but they had an awful lot more going for them than that. Their full-forward line of Charlie Carter, DJ Carey and Henry Shefflin were devastating as they teased and tormented the Offaly defence into submission; Andy Comerford controlled most of the important action at midfield while their half-backs, Philip Larkin, Eamonn Kennedy and Peter Barry rose splendidly to the occasion.
Charlie Carter (1-3), DJ Carey (2-4) and Henry Shefflin (1-3) gave a truly memorable exhibition of deadly finishing on a day when Kilkenny scored two points more than their combined total in the last two All-Ireland finals. Ultimately, it was the finishing instincts of this deadly trio which flattened Offaly's resistance into oblivion.
Carey had a quiet time in each of the last two finals but it was all so very different yesterday as he set about delivering the sort of performance his talents warranted and his fans expected. He did it with supreme style in a man of the match performance which show-cased his wonderful array of skills.
His goal after just six minutes set the agenda for the entire day as he capitalised on a mistake by Niall Claffey and sprinted through before whipping the ball to the Offaly net.
There were still 64 minutes to go but the significance of that goal was pretty clear to everybody in the 61,493 crowd. Offaly, who had been hammered by Kilkenny in each of the last two Leinster finals, needed a confidence injection early but instead they were snowed under by a Kilkenny avalanche.
Carey was credited with finishing Kilkenny's second goal too in the ninth minute, although there was some confusion as to whether or not Shefflin's shot had crossed the goal line before DJ got his touch.
While there may have been some doubt as to the actual scorer, there was no mistaking the fact that it put Kilkenny eight points clear. Even at that early stage, it was apparent that Offaly would require divine intervention to have any hope of surviving.
POWER AND POISE
The power, poise and pace of Kilkenny's game mesmerised Offaly and, while they rallied in the second quarter, they were using so much fuel that it was inevitable they would run dry long before the end.
They cut the lead to five points in the 29th minute but a quick surge of pace by Kilkenny yielded 1-2 (Carter got the goal in the 32nd minute) before half-time. It was heart-breaking for Offaly. They had worked extremely hard to give themselves a slim outside chance but suddenly they were looking back up the steep mountain again.
Offaly's case looked beyond redemption when they trailed by 3-8 to 0-7 at half-time and their decision to relocate Brian Whelahan to right full-forward for the second half was a recognition of their hapless status. A similar move two years ago yielded rich dividends but Kilkenny were a different proposition defensively this time and while Whelahan tried his best, the openings were very limited.
Hard work and sheer pride helped Offaly to cut the lead to eight points (3-10 to 0-11) after 45 minutes but they badly needed a goal if they were to have any chance of launching a meaningful revival.
Instead, it was Kilkenny who got in for a goal, knocked in by Shefflin after a long drive by Canice Brennan led to an outbreak of panic in the Offaly defence.
Denis Byrne pointed in the 54th minute to put Kilkenny four goals clear and on their way to the easiest All-Ireland final win since Tipperary demolished Antrim in 1989. The exit gates opened for business shortly afterwards as fans began to drift away, convinced that the destination of the McCarthy Cup was no longer an issue.
They were right. The challenge now facing Offaly was whether or not they could avoid being totally humiliated. It was a grim scenario for a side who had performed with such a wonderful swagger when beating Cork in the semi-final just five weeks earlier.
In fairness to Offaly, they launched a mini-recovery and Johnny Pilkington's 59th minute goal was followed by two points to cut the lead to eight points. Respectability beckoned but it disappeared pretty quickly. Just as they had done in the first half, Kilkenny finished with a flourish.
Sub, Eddie Brennan, who would have got a starting job in any other full-forward line, whipped home Kilkenny's fifth goal in injury time and, predictably, the rout was completed by Carey and Carter, who added two finishing points.
There was a palpable sense of relief in the Kilkenny dressing-room after as it would have been disastrous had they lost another final. Given the pressurised circumstances, they might have been expected to be tense and edgy in the opening quarter but instead they were at total ease with themselves and their game as they swept to their first All-Ireland title since 1993.
Offaly went into yesterday's game hoping that they could repeat the form they showed against Cork but they were not allowed to impose themselves as they did in the semi-final. They wore Cork down physically but that was never going to happen against a strong Kilkenny defence whose defiance was, was perhaps, best typified by Kennedy.
Kennedy has had his critics, not least in Kilkenny, but he gave them an unqualified answer yesterday. Strong and powerful under the high ball, he also brought a sound work ethic to other chores and with Peter Barry and Phil Larkin playing well on either side of him, Offaly found the routes to goal consistently blocked.
It was very frustrating for Offaly. They could never quite change the tempo of the game to their pace and once they started conceding goals, they were always chasing a lost cause.
Manager Pat Fleury conceded afterwards that Kilkenny's greater hunger was hugely significant. That was indeed the case.
Offaly played like a side with very high mileage on the clock and despite their record for battling performances, their confidence levels had been seriously depleted by their last two thrashings by Kilkenny. Publicly, they didn't acknowledge it but the psychological edge rested very much with Kilkenny going into the game.
The fact that Offaly went for broke by switching Whelahan to attack for the second half underlined the nature of the difficulties they encountered. It wasn't that they didn't need him in defence but clearly they felt it would take something special to unhinge the Kilkenny defence.
That didn't work either, so really there were no escape routes for Offaly. Kilkenny were operating at a much higher level and, on yesterday's performance, are going to be a very serious force for several seasons to come.
The scored 12-71 in four championship games this year, winning by margins of 15, 11, eight and 13 points respectively. Critics may argue that the standard of the opposition wasn't very good and while there can be no denying that it was not a vintage year for hurling, Kilkenny did everything that was required of them with style and certainty.
That was more than enough to bring them another All-Ireland triumph, one which was very badly needed after the disappointment of the last two years. It was their third consecutive championship win over Offaly with the margin of victory increasing all the time from 10 (1999 Leinster final) to 11 (this year's Leinster final) to 13 points yesterday.
The bitter memories of the '98 and '99 will count for nothing when Willie O'Connor brings the McCarthy Cup back home tonight.
Truly, after this one-sided affair, not even the most gifted carpenter can fully repair hurling's `back door'. Kilkenny smashed it - hopefully for good - yesterday.
MAN OF THE MATCH: DJ Carey (Kilkenny).
SCORERS - Kilkenny: DJ Carey 2-4, H Shefflin (2f), C Carter 1-3 each, D Byrne 0-4, E Brennan 1-0, A Comerford 0-1. Offaly: Johnny Dooley 0-8 (6f, 1 '65), J Pilkington 1-1, Joe Dooley, B Murphy, G Hanniffy, B Whelahan, P Mulhare 0-1 each.
KILKENNY - J McGarry; M Kavanagh, N Hickey, W O'Connor; P Larkin, E Kennedy, P Barry; A Comerford, B McEvoy; D Byrne, J Power, J Hoyne; C Carter, D J Carey, H Shefflin. Subs: C Brennan for McEvoy (27), E Brennan for C Brennan (61).
OFFALY - S Byrne; S Whelahan, K Kinahan, N Claffey; B Whelahan, J Errity, K Martin; Johnny Dooley, G Oakley; J Pilkington, G Hanniffy, B Murphy; M Duignan, J Ryan, Joe Dooley. Subs: D Franks for Claffey (46), J Troy for Ryan (48), P Mulhare for Murphy (51).
REF - W Barrett (Tipperary).