Hurling: Cats get their business done
THE old truism that semi-finals are all about winning was repeated by Brian Cody during his post-match press briefing in Croke Park.
But that won’t prevent the naysayers from wondering aloud whether his Kilkenny players still have what it takes to win when it matters most, on the first Sunday of September. Such doubts are predicted on a number of assumptions. Firstly, that Tipperary frank the formbook next Sunday by ending Dublin’s fairytale run, thus ensuring a third consecutive All-Ireland final between hurling’s Big Two. Secondly, that what you saw from the Cats yesterday is as good as it gets. And that, history has shown, would be a dangerous assumption.
This strange semi-final ended in a 2-19 to 1-16 victory for Kilkenny, and the margin was just about right. At times, the former champions looked vulnerable in defence, at other times their shooting and/or shot selection was error-strewn … and yet never once did you really suspect that Waterford might actually catch them.
Kilkenny also led by six at the break – 2-10 to 1-7 – and were flattered to do so, notwithstanding another dominant midfield display from Michael Fennelly. Waterford had recovered from a third-minute blow to their collective solar plexus – the first of two expertly finished Richie Hogan goals – to hurl their way firmly back into contention. John Mullane inspired hope when rifling home an acutely angled goal after 25 minutes, set up by the trojan Seamus Prendergast. When the otherwise erratic Eoin Kelly landed his one point from play, on the half-hour mark, the gap was down to just two points.
Then, soon after, Mullane engineered another half-chance of a goal but his rising effort was diverted by goalkeeper David Herity. Wiser counsel may have urged Mullane to take his handy point, but it’s hard to be hypercritical of a stellar servant who finished the game with 1-6 from play. In any event, Waterford’s biggest mistake came soon after when an aimless delivery out of defence went straight down Tommy Walsh’s throat. Walsh returned the ball with interest and Richie Power broke it into the path of Colin Fennelly, whose inch-perfect hand-pass teed up Hogan for his second goal in the 34th minute.
Afterwards, unlike Cody who was withering in his assessment of a free count that heavily favoured Waterford, Davy Fitzgerald felt referee Barry Kelly had a good game. But the deflated Deise boss claimed that two fouls weren’t spotted by officialdom in the lead-up to Hogan’s pivotal second goal – an alleged push by Walsh and also a thrown hand-pass.
“Small, little things make such a difference,” Fitzgerald reflected. “If we had gone in at half-time, two or three points down compared to six … a way different ball game. “That second goal will haunt me. It changed the game. If we could have hung on there at half-time, we’d have got some confidence.” Instead, upon the resumption, Kilkenny clipped five of the first six points to ease 10 clear. Henry Shefflin was now scoring from play and growing in influence – a positive for the final. However, it’s not that Waterford were being starved of possession: they shot five confidence- sapping wides in the first 15 minutes of the half, invariably sloppy efforts from low-percentage positions.
As late as the hour-mark, the gap still stood at nine – but then Waterford suddenly caught fire with four unanswered points in less than three minutes. “We could have thrown up the white flag and gone, but we didn’t. I’m proud of the guys,” Fitzgerald declared. In the cold light of day, however, it was too big an ask for a team so reliant on just one scoring forward. While Prendergast was a totemic first-half presence on the wing, Mullane was left to carry an inordinate burden despite playing much of the game out around the ‘40’. He started at centre-forward before switching to the corner (from where he scored his goal) before resuming his roaming brief in the second half.
Three of his points came beyond the hour, but ultimately it wasn’t enough as Waterford’s late charge petered out amid a series of high deliveries easily snuffed out by a packed Kilkenny defence determined to avoid green flags at any cost. Meanwhile, at the far end, the winners indulged in an uncharacteristic wide-fest – six alone in as many minutes, bringing their match total to 17.
“That’s three more than Waterford had frees,” Cody sardonically remarked. “I don't worry too much about wides. You'd love to see them going over the bar but the creation of chances is hugely important. We could have done more with that possession, definitely, but that's something that can be improved.” As you might have guessed from the above, the Kilkenny manager was more concerned with the free-count. His team were awarded six in total; at least twice during the second half, Kelly’s decision to whistle for Waterford frees was greeted with visible displeasure from Cody. “How many were Waterford awarded?” he asked afterwards. Fourteen came the reply. “It felt like that on the sideline,” he responded.
“Baffled, confused, bewildered – can I go further? I never criticise referees,” he added, ever the diplomat. Refereeing carps aside, Cody has his Kilkenny troops where he wants them – back in a sixth consecutive final – but with copious scope for the improvement that must come when, or if, Tipp loom into September view.