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Cats put their bodies on line

BRIAN CODY has seen it all and won it all but yesterday's two-point triumph in adversity, with no trophy on offer, will have given him almost as much satisfaction as the nine All-Ireland titles he has already overseen since this journey began in 1999.

When Paul Murphy soared highest to claim Richie McCarthy's lob on top of the Kilkenny goalmouth, it finally confirmed what had remained a fascinating mystery for the preceding 72 minutes ... Cody and his indefatigable warriors will be back in Croke Park on September 7 for the All-Ireland SHC final, while Limerick will be at home on Shannonside, still wondering what might have been.

On the stroke of 70 minutes, Shane Dowling had narrowly missed a high-pressure free from distance and that essentially meant it was all or nothing, goal or bust, for Limerick.

Kilkenny were by now hanging onto a perilous two-point cushion, yet their defensive resistance during that nerve-shredding climax was redolent of ravenous challengers chasing their first All-Ireland, not multi-decorated September veterans.

The sliotar was like a bar of soap after a torrential downpour and that probably didn't aid Limerick's cause in those frenetic closing stages, but the heroism - from both sides - bordered on epic.

In the space of barely 60 seconds, three Kilkenny players - Brian Hogan, Conor Fogarty and TJ Reid - put their bodies on the line to block attempted Limerick shots or deliveries.

"It was excellent defending, a hook and a block and closing down, non-stop backing each other up," enthused Cody. "And Limerick showed all those things as well, so it was a question of two genuine teams competing absolutely in a terrific spirit for every ball. It's a tough one for them to lose and a great one for us to win."

So the rejuvenated former kingpins return to that familiar September stage, Cody and his on-field spiritual leader Henry Shefflin chasing a tenth Celtic Cross in what will be their 13th All-Ireland final as manager and player. Both men will know how close they came to the "absolute devastation" that Cody later spoke of, in reference to Limerick, for this was a game the latter came so agonisingly close to winning.

DAGGERS

If he didn't know the old truism before his maiden campaign in management, TJ Ryan assuredly does now: goals win matches and a lack of them can lose you them.

Limerick lost their Munster final with Cork by 2-24 to 0-24, courtesy of two second half Leeside daggers. Yesterday was more finely balanced still, as the scoreboard - 2-13 to 0-17 - readily confirms.

It wasn't just the goals, but their timing, that undid Limerick. When Dowling showed sublime innovation under pressure to bat a one-handed point, the clock read 30 minutes and the underdogs led by 0-10 to 0-7. Yet when the half-time whistle sounded they trailed by 1-9 to 0-10 - courtesy of points from Michael Fennelly and Pádraig Walsh, followed by a stunning goal from Richie Hogan (our marginal Man of the Match) as the half ticked into injury-time, and followed by a goalmouth scramble at the far end which somehow resulted in a Limerick blank.

Referee James McGrath played a shrewd advantage for the goal - Colin Fennelly was fouled before offloading to Hogan, who then stood up to a crunching Wayne McNamara shoulder before burying the chance.

Limerick had hurled up a first half storm, led by Seamus Hickey's magnificent suppression of TJ Reid, while their forwards' economy was in marked contrast to Kilkenny's uncertain shooting - eight wides before the break, plus several more undercooked efforts.

You wondered if the goal would sap Shannonside resolve. Instead, despite twice falling three down, they then rattled off five unanswered points via a brace from the excellent Declan Hannon, two Dowling frees and a clever Seán Tobin score.

SPRINTING

The third quarter also contained a few half-chances of a Limerick goal, most notably when David Breen's angled drive was blocked by David Herity and Colin Fennelly - sprinting back from attack - prevented Graeme Mulcahy from pouncing on the rebound.

Then, with Shefflin introduced to an undiplomatic welcome, came the pivotal score in the 56th minute. Limerick skipper Donal O'Grady was booked for a wild pull on Joey Holden, and Richie Hogan's resultant free dropped on the edge of the square where Richie Power and Eoin Larkin both swung in the air. There followed much debate over who got the all-important touch - RTÉ replays gave the vote to Larkin - but the net effect was the same. Limerick were now chasing the game.

They got lucky, later on, when Power almost crowned his influential cameo only to be unceremoniously tripped by the despairing O'Grady, inches outside the penalty zone. McGrath awarded a free, tapped over by Reid for the game's final score, but somehow eschewed a stonewall second yellow for the Limerick captain.

A minor asterisk on a blood-and-thunder thriller.


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