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Kilkenny pass Faith' test

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Richie Power, Kilkenny. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE

Richie Power, Kilkenny. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE

Richie Power, Kilkenny. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE

NO earthquakes to report from the sun-kissed midlands – but several defensive tremors that will have shaken Kilkenny's sangfroid and offered morsels of hope to all the rest.

The universally anticipated result duly materialised in O'Connor Park, as the 1/25 favourites advanced to a Leinster SHC semi-final date with Dublin or Wexford on Sunday week, but this was not your usual first-day-of-summer routine in the life and times of Brian Cody.

In eight previous championship collisions against the Cody-managed Cats, Offaly had never got closer than nine points – here they lost by just five, 0-26 to 4-9.

That lopsided scoreline leads to another table-quiz question: when was the last time Kilkenny leaked four goals in SHC combat? Answer: the 2010 All-Ireland final against Tipperary.

Yesterday was only the third time in 63 outings under their venerated boss that they've coughed up four or more goals – the other occasion being that five-goal Galway salvo in 2005.

This time, though, unlike either of the above occasions, Kilkenny emerged unscathed and so Cody's big match comeback after recent heart surgery will not go down in the annals of all-time shocks.

"Ah yeah, you wouldn't be delighted," he said, in typically deadpan fashion, about Offaly's early adrenaline-shot of two goals inside 13 minutes, followed by another late brace. "Very seldom you'll win the game by conceding four goals and scoring no goal yourself, but that's the way it transpired."

It left Offaly staring at the qualifiers yet at least partially emboldened by a moral victory. "The pride I have in them lads didn't need today to come out," declared a defiant manager, Ollie Baker.

"They prepare every bit as much as what Kilkenny, Cork, Tipperary, Galway do. We were written off and that's very insulting to the commitment and sacrifice that these players have made. They've put their lives on hold effectively for the last seven/eight months."

Not that Baker had expected the unexpected: "We weren't looking at it in unrealistic terms to say that we were going to come out and just give a performance and it was going to mean a victory ... they're just so good."

 

Meltdown

And, in truth, there was never a sustained sense that the All-Ireland kingpins were going to suffer provincial meltdown, at least not once they'd recovered from those two early jolts – a Colin Egan goal after just 40 seconds and a spectacular 25-metre Joe Bergin thunderbolt 12 minutes later.

The unmarked Egan was in the right place when Bergin's attempted point rebounded off an upright. Initially the Kilkenny full-back line appeared panicky under route-one attack, arguably not helped by Jackie Tyrrell's early exit with a quad injury, whereas Bergin's strike after pouncing on a puckout break will invite Nowlan Park post-mortems over the acres of space left through their central defensive channel.

Soon after, Shane Dooley's '65' pushed Offaly five clear and the 8,337 crowd briefly imagined the unthinkable.

But reality wasn't long dawning. Offaly needed all their men on fire, yet their marquee forward (Dooley) was struggling to make any headway in open play. By half-time, the visitors were trailing 2-6 to 0-11 yet well positioned to strike. On the turnaround, they had a fresh wind in their backs and a renewed sense of focus: cue five unanswered points to lead by four.

By the 57th minute, the gap was out to eight, and Offaly appeared to have run out of legs or ideas or both. And yet the sense that, on another day against elite opposition, the injury-denuded Cats would have been vulnerable was confirmed by the closing chapters.

First we had a third goal from substitute Dan Currams. Suddenly just four clear, Kilkenny stirred themselves with four points on the spin – the run started by Richie Hogan, their standout forward, with follow-up scores by Richie Power (free) and subs Matthew Ruth and Walter Walsh. In the game's final play, Bergin got the decisive touch to Brian Carroll's speculative delivery for goal number four.

Plenty to work on then for the champions, who won't be helped by their well-documented injury woes, added to here by Tyrrell's departure. "The next game is in two weeks' time so it's going to be very, very tight," Cody admitted.

Henry Shefflin has already ruled himself out of the semi-final equation, while Michael Fennelly was sporting a protective boot on his damaged ankle.

Asked about Fennelly's semi-final prospects, Cody said: "I would think no chance."


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