KILKENNY 2-21 OFFALY 1-13 THE Offaly hurlers surrendered so passively to Kilkenny in yesterday's Guinness Leinster SHC final at Croke Park that their season scarcely deserves another chance.
Yet, within minutes of their abject failure to keep the game alive past the 50th minute they were all but handed the glittering prize of a place in the All-Ireland semi-final.
So what was yesterday all about then? Not a whole lot, actually, except for providing more compelling evidence that the `back door' championship system has ripped the soul from the Leinster final.
For the third year in a row, it was a dreary flop, rescued only by the quality of Kilkenny's scoring and even that has to be viewed in the context of Offaly's woeful resistance.
The game lacked spirit and passion and - most shocking of all - it was boringly uncompetitive once Kilkenny doused Offaly's little fire just after half-time.
The cumulative scoreline from the last three Leinster finals now reads: Kilkenny 10-45 Offaly 3-40. Kilkenny's winning margin of five, ten and eleven points respectively hints at total superiority.
That's the case in Leinster but Offaly won the most meaningful battle of all between the sides in the 1988 All-Ireland final.
Herein rests the problem with the back door system. It allows teams to head for the escape chute if the burden becomes too heavy in a provincial final.
Offaly, a county with a well deserved reputation as steely battlers, have taken this unfortunate course in each of the last three Leinster finals, knowing that there is always another route back into All-Ireland contention. As luck would have it, the Gods keep welcoming them down easy street.
For the third year in a row, Offaly have drawn the Ulster champions in the All-Ireland quarter-final and - with all due respects to a resurgent Derry side - it will be the greatest surprise since Devon Loch tripped up a few yards from the Aintree Grand National finish line if Johnny Dooley and Co are not back in Croke Park for a semi-final date with Cork on August 6.
Offaly will be an altogether different side by then. Confronted by the reality that there will be no gain without pain, they will major in relentless resolve and we will all be left wondering how they could be so remote and almost disinterested yesterday.
That won't alter the fact that, once again, the Leinster final has been a sad, depressing bore at the end of a quite awful series.
Yesterday's game needed to provide a basic level of competitiveness - not least to show the province in a decent light vis a vis Munster - but apart from the opening 30 minutes and a brief spell just after half-time, it failed to produce anything vaguely reminiscent of a highly charged final.
Offaly led by a point on three separate occasions in the opening 26 minutes but there was always a feeling that once Kilkenny injected real pace into the game, Offaly wouldn't quicken.
That's literally what happened in the 29th minute when D J Carey sprinted away from Kevin Kinahan and, as if conscious of having some responsibility for improving the ailing goal rate in hurling, drove in a smashing goal. Less confident finishers would have opted for a point. Not Carey, whose eye for goal remains as sharp as ever.
He didn't get many more chances as Kinahan applied the brakes but that goal became a defining factor. As Kilkenny accelerated towards half-time, scoring three more unanswered points, the fault lines began to widen all over the Offaly side.
Kilkenny led by 1-10 to 0-8 at the break and added two more points before Joe Dooley raised a brief flicker of defiance with an opportunist goal in the 41st minute. Despite its timing, it was never going to have the seismic impact required to turn the game around.
Gary Hanniffy cut the margin to three points (1-12 to 1-9) in the 45th minute but Kilkenny quickly re-asserted themselves and, over the next 25 minutes, out-scored their struggling rivals by 1-9 to 0-4.
It was all so incredibly easy for Kilkenny as Offaly threw in the towel and began looking towards a reprieve opportunity in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Charlie Carter had a goal dis-allowed in the 43rd minute but, as if to show he has no hard feelings towards referee, Willie Barrett, batted home another goal three minutes later.
Offaly goalkeeper, Stephen Byrne, who will be one of the few Offalymen not helping the manager with enquiries into this defeat, was reduced to the role of bewildered spectator as point after point flew high over his head with amazing regularity. Offaly sent Brian Whelahan to full-forward in the trademark admission of desperation but there was nothing he could do this time. Earlier, he had fought a brave, but losing battle, against John Power, who gave a wonderful exhibition of industry and energy.
He broke the pain barrier on several occasions, thumping into a posse of Offaly defenders and offering heart and hand in a selfless contribution to the cause.
His point in the 49th minute was greeted with an appreciative roar by the Kilkenny fans as was his departure from the action in 57th minute. Kilkenny were leading by 2-17 to 1-11 at the time so it was quite safe for the great warrior to leave the finishing formalities to his colleagues.
They continued to dominate while Offaly's resistance grew increasingly weak as they willed the game to a finish. So too did the crowd of 32,802.
Offaly will be back in Croke Park next Sunday week but many of the fans will think very carefully before returning if Offaly and Kilkenny meet again in next year's Leinster final. Three consecutive Leinster final flops on the trot should be enough to sound the alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power.
Hurling's so-called golden age lost some of its lustre yesterday. That's very worrying.
MAN OF THE MATCH - J Power (Kilkenny).
SCORERS - Kilkenny: C Carter 1-4, D J Carey 1-3 (2f), H Shefflin 0-6 (4f, 1 '65), S Grehan 0-3, D Byrne 0-2, B McEvoy, J Power, A Comerford 0-1 each. Offaly: Johnny Dooley 0-5 (4f), B Murphy 0-4, Joe Dooley 1-0, G Hanniffy 0-3, M Duignan 0-1. KILKENNY - J McGarry; M Kavanagh, N Hickey, W O'Connor; P Larkin, E Kennedy, P Barry; A Comerford, B McEvoy; S Grehan, J Power, D Byrne; C Carter, D J Carey, H Shefflin.Subs: A Cummins for Comerford (57), J Hoyne for Power (57), E Brennan for Shefflin (63).
OFFALY - S Byrne; S Whelahan, K Kinahan, N Claffey; Barry Whelahan, Brian Whelahan, K Martin; Johnny Dooley, J Pilkington; P Mulhare, G Hanniffy, B Murphy; M Duignan, J Errity, Joe Dooley. Subs: A Hanrahan for Duignan (half-time), J Troy for Errity (41), D Franks for Mulhare (55), J Ryan for Pilkington (65).
REF: W Barrett (Tipperary).
U-21 Ulster Hurling Final