Kilkenny find familiar high notes as Rice kills off Dubs
KILKENNY 4-17 DUBLIN 1-15
The ripples of excitement at Dublin's first goal in a championship match against Kilkenny for 14 years were still audible around Croke Park when Paul Murphy's clearance from his half-back line in the 58th minute stuck to Richie Power's hand and, with the deftest of offloads to Michael Rice, they had quickly engineered a fourth goal to re-establish a nine-point lead.
In an instant, whatever flickering flames that were struggling for life again in this Leinster final had been extinguished. They hadn't given them a chance to flourish. It was cold and clinical, quintessential Kilkenny, or quintessential Kilkenny prior to last September.
Since then, their imperious command of hurling has been challenged from all quarters. They hadn't won a game at Croke Park in their last three visits. They hadn't beaten Dublin in the same number of games played. They had lost a league final to the same opponents by 12 points.
But this was compelling evidence of a much renewed force with urgent business on its mind. The work that started at Wexford Park three weeks earlier continued apace here.
The statistics reveal that this was a 68th Leinster hurling title for Kilkenny, a seventh in seven years, 12 in 13 years of Brian Cody management and 13 from the last 14 years that spans substitute Michael Kavanagh's career.
But none of those were more important to the message that it laid down to the rest of the hurling world. No one ever suggested that they were gone but it certainly felt as if they were back to somewhere close to their ruthless best.
The manner in which they threw the fire blankets on that burgeoning Dublin comeback for all of 90 seconds says everything about their frame of mind.
Anthony Daly wondered aloud afterwards if his side had got the next point to reduce the gap to five -- after Paul Ryan's close-range free wound up in David Herity's net on 56 minutes -- what type of finish might have evolved. Kilkenny ensured they could only imagine, not experience, such a climax.
This performance had been brewing for weeks in Kilkenny. From the training ground a feeling was emanating that the right players were hitting all the right notes for a perfect tune. Dublin's new-found status in hurling was a rallying point. The genie had to be put back into the bottle.
Restored to full health, Henry Shefflin was as creative as he was clinical in his finishing from left half-forward, where he had switched to at the start with Eoin Larkin.
Larkin also profited from the move, winning the first free, scoring the first goal from a difficult angle and generally being the target for much of Kilkenny's early play.
Dublin expected a backlash from the league final and it came at them hard and early.
They'll be disappointed they didn't deal with it better but, on the plus side, they were competitive, physical and were able to dust themselves down from so many body blows until Rice finally put the lights out on them.
They'll recover. In a strange way winning their next game has possibly been more important that winning this one. A Leinster title in the company of a fully restored Kilkenny team might have been a year too soon, but an All-Ireland semi-final is now an imperative if a steady path of progress is to be maintained.
Dublin's losses in personnel finally caught up with them. Their touch deserted them too often under heavy and sustained pressure and their decision-making in possession offered further default on the game they had been playing.
Substitutes Daire Plunkett and Maurice O'Brien carried into contact too often and those were terms that Kilkenny would always readily agree to.
The number of blocks they executed looked above the average and with referee Barry Kelly adopting a laissez faire attitude the two most physical sides in the game were full-blooded in their approach.
Kilkenny were dominant in far too many positions, however. Brian Hogan read the game superbly, Paul Murphy was a revelation in his first Leinster final and two of his clearances set up the Kilkenny goals in the second half.
But it was Tommy Walsh who set the tone of the day for Kilkenny in his duel with Conal Keaney.
Keaney has been rightly credited with bringing a hard edge to Dublin's play this season and when he claimed the first puck-out in Walsh's company the portents were good.
But when Walsh returned the compliment on six minutes it drew a glorious cheer from the Kilkenny supporters in the 33,814 crowd and by the end of the first quarter his dominance was such that Dublin thought it better to deploy Keaney at midfield, where Michael Fennelly was stamping his authority impressively.
Larkin's 11th-minute goal gave Kilkenny a 1-3 to 0-1 lead and when Fennelly squeezed past a troubled Oisin Gough along the end line for a second goal on 20 minutes, you sensed then that Dublin were playing for respectability as a 2-5 to 0-3 lead developed.
The characters in the build-up to that Fennelly goal were significant, with Shefflin, Fennelly, Walsh and Richie Power all involved, four of the heavy hitters who had missed the league final two months earlier.
The game reached its most physical point over the next 10 minutes and that seemed to aid Dublin's recovery.
Shefflin was involved in a couple of altercations and when Keaney charged him after his tackle on O'Brien it briefly gave those around him impetus. Kilkenny needed a miraculous reaction save from goalkeeper David Herity after Shane Durkin's 32nd-minute delivery had spun off Noel Hickey.
That impetus was all too brief, however, and with the last three points of the half in injury-time, the champions took a 2-10 to 0-7 lead in at half-time.
Dublin reshuffled furiously. Joey Boland, missing for the last two months, was already gone after 22 minutes and Gough and the underperforming Peadar Carton followed him at the break.
Plunkett and O'Brien brought more energy, while the third substitute, Declan O'Dwyer, came close to grabbing a goal from an Alan McCrabbe sideline cut early in the second half. Ryan continued to provide a consistent touch from frees but Shefflin's cracking goal on 42 minutes, courtesy of TJ Reid's delivery by hand, put the widest margin, 3-11 to 0-8, between them as a stinging shot left Gary Maguire with no chance.
Maguire was at his best nine minutes later to keep out Larkin and when Jackie Tyrell took out O'Brien, the victim of several over-zealous Kilkenny challenges, it teed up Ryan's goal.
But the euphoria was short-lived. Kilkenny had given Dublin hurling enough oxygen for one year.
Scorers -- Kilkenny: H Shefflin 1-9 (0-7f), M Rice, E Larkin 1-2 each, C Fennelly 1-0, R Hogan 0-2, B Hogan, R Power 0-1 each.
Dublin: P Ryan 1-9 (1-9f), A McCrabbe 0-2, C Keaney, C McCormack, D Plunkett, M O'Brien 0-1 each.
Kilkenny -- D Herity 8; P Murphy 8, N Hickey 6, J Tyrrell 7; T Walsh 9, B Hogan 8, J J Delaney 5; M Fennelly 8, T J Reid 6; M Rice 8, R Power 7, H Shefflin 8; C Fennelly 7, E Larkin 8, R Hogan 6. Subs: P Hogan 6 for Delaney (h-t), J 'Cha' Fitzpatrick 6 for Reid (52), M Ruth for Power (70), J Mulhall for Larkin (70).
Dublin -- G Maguire 7; N Corcoran 7, P Kelly 8, O Gough 5; J McCaffrey 6, J Boland 4, S Durkin 6; L Rushe 6, S Lambert 5; C McCormack 6, A McCrabbe 7, C Keaney 6; D O'Callaghan 5, P Ryan 6, P Carton 4. Subs: M O'Brien 7 for Boland (22), D O'Dwyer 5 for Carton (h-t), P Schutte 7 for Gough (h-t), D Plunkett 6 for Lambert (43), S Ryan for O'Callaghan (64).
Ref -- B Kelly (Westmeath)