KILKENNY 3-12 WATERFORD 0-18 All-Ireland SHC semi-final THE finish line is in sight and Kilkenny have hit for home, propelled by their unyielding determination to harvest the three-in-a-row for the first time in over 90 years.
It has been an unusually long championship campaign for them but despite being floored by Wexford, stunned by Clare first time out and wobbled by Waterford they are standing tall and true as they head into their sixth Guinness All-Ireland final in seven seasons.
They had to clear their heads several times in the closing 22 minutes yesterday as Waterford closed in on them with menacing intent.
Kilkenny led by 3-9 to 0-12 after 47 minutes but could never shake off their courageous pursuers who scored six of the next eight points before Eddie Brennan finalised Kilkenny's account with a late point.
There is no more fundamental instinct in Kilkenny hurling than that which dictates that a goal is worth a lot more than three points in real terms. Goals boost confidence and offer breathing space. They can also deflate the opposition although that didn't happen to Waterford, despite conceding three in the first half.
However, the goals very definitely stabilised Kilkenny and set Waterford a target which they could never quite reach. That two of the goals were scored by Henry Shefflin made it all the more satisfying for Kilkenny as there had been a doubt about whether he could play at all after sustaining an eye injury against Clare eight days earlier.
It didn't take him long to declare his well-being by skipping past Declan Prendergast before whipping the ball home after just four minutes. His second arrived in the 33rd minute when he glided in past a static defence to touch a John Hoyne delivery into the net and, in between, Eddie Brennan had maintained his high goal-rate with a smart finish after his first shot had been brilliantly blocked by Ian O'Regan.
It was typical of a day when many of the important little breaks went Kilkenny's way. But then, they would argue that they deserved them after battling so defiantly since losing to Wexford in the Leinster semi-final.
Waterford might contend that the gods could have looked a little more kindly on them but the harsh reality was that, with the exception of Paul Flynn and second half sub Jack Kennedy, their attack was a wasteland. Dan Shanahan, who scored 6-4 from play in Munster, failed to score as did Shane O'Sullivan, Seamus Prendergast and Eoin McGrath.
Shanahan's eclipse was the most significant for Waterford as they had high expectations that the big Lismore man would cause problems for both the Kilkenny full-back and half-back lines. It didn't work out like that but then the Kilkenny defence had returned to their imperious ways. None more so than JJ Delaney, who put in a solid application to retain the 'Hurler of the Year' award he won last year. Peter Barry, Tommy Walsh and Noel Hickey were also outstanding, especially in the key area of preventing Waterford getting in for the goal they so badly needed.
Waterford had a few goal chances late in the second half but they had so little time to line up a shot that the moments passed. Again, bad luck dealt them the odd mischievous hand too as players slipped at vital moments on a surface which had taken quite an amount of pre-match rain.
Kilkenny were marginally better at holding their feet which, over 70 minutes, was probably worth a few scores.
With so many of their attack misfiring, it was fortunate for Waterford that Flynn was in such prolific humour. He scored 0-13 (0-4 from play) and did more than any Waterford player to prevent Kilkenny's first half goals having the game decided by the break.
As it was, Kilkenny led by just four points (3-6 to 0-11) at the interval and while they extended it to six points 12 minutes into the second half, it was not as fatal for Waterford as it might have been in less confident times.
They packed midfield and gradually began to get more ball through to an attack where the introduction of Kennedy had brought about a big improvement. He scored three points; Flynn continued to impress; Ken McGrath switched from centre-back to attack and Waterford cut the gap to just two points in injury-time. However, Kilkenny held out with some desperate defending in their own square.
While Waterford will be frustrated at losing a game where they scored more often than Kilkenny, they would have to accept that it's a rather misleading statistic. Kilkenny shot 16 sides to Waterford's five, which gives a clear indication of the possession ratio.
Kilkenny worked exceptionally hard at keeping the ball away from Waterford centre-back, Ken McGrath, with John Hoyne extremely effective in keeping the ball moving to the inside forwards. Indeed, Waterford might have done better had they moved McGrath to attack earlier than they did in the second half.
Martin Comerford had his best game of the championship so far; Shefflin finished on 2-4; Eddie Brennan chipped in with 1-1 while DJ Carey, who scored a wonderful point from way out on the sideline in the first half, tracked back to great effect in the second half.
There were times in the closing ten minutes when Kilkenny's tough schedule - this was their third game in 14 days - appeared to have left them leg weary but their sheer will to stay on course for the three-in-a-row steered them safely home.
Waterford gave it their very best shot and contributed enormously to a most exciting game but, once again, came up a little short. Ultimately, the concession of three first-half goals left them with a problem which they couldn't quite solve.
They needed a goal to really ignite their second half revival but, apart from very late on, they found it hard to exert pressure on Kilkenny 'keeper, James McGarry.
SCORERS - Kilkenny: H Shefflin 2-4 (0-4f), E Brennan 1-1, M Comerford 0-3, DJ Carey 0-2 (1f), K Coogan, J Fitzpatrick 0-1 each. Waterford: P Flynn 0-13 (8f, 1 '65'), J Kennedy 0-3, M Walsh, E Kelly 0-1 each.
KILKENNY - J McGarry 7; M Kavanagh 7, N Hickey 8, J Ryall 7; T Walsh 8, P Barry 8, JJ Delaney 9; D Lyng 6, K Coogan 7; E Brennan 7, J Hoyne 7, DJ Carey 7; J Fitzpatrick 6, M Comerford 8, H Shefflin 8.
WATERFORD - I O'Regan 6; E Murphy 7, D Prendergast 6, J Murray 7; T Browne 7, K McGrath 7, B Phelan 6; E Kelly 7, D Bennett 6; D Shanahan 5, M Walsh 6, P Flynn 9; S O'Sullivan 5, S Prendergast 6, E McGrath 7. Subs: J Kennedy 8 for O'Sullivan (ht), P O'Brien 7 for E McGrath (58).
REF - A MacSuibhne (Dublin).
ATTENDANCE - 51,263.