Dermot Crowe: 'This was Cody's most magnificent hour yet and that is saying something'
In 20 years of steering the county side, this was the coach's finest hour, writes Dermot Crowe
Oh boy. Kilkenny have been feted, their erstwhile king has met the Queen, their hurlers have been all over the world and experienced wonderful things, but in the time Brian Cody has been managing them this may have been the best yet.
They came to Croke Park as outsiders and defeated the All-Ireland champions and National League holders in a classic and breathtaking game of hurling. All the fundamentals of the Cody gospel were there, writ large.
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You can pore over statistics and spend long hours devising tactical strategies, but hurling still thrives on principles that are timeless and plain. Limerick didn't have the same sharpness, the curse of winning the Munster Championship coming back to haunt an All-Ireland semi-finalist from the province yet again. The four-week gap that followed their exhibition when demolishing Tipperary didn't do them any favours, but they won't be looking for excuses there.
Kilkenny, two weeks after taking out Cork, were fully deserving of their win. Anything else would have been an injustice even if Limerick were agonisingly close to rescuing the match and sending it into extra-time.
Limerick have been great champions, but yesterday they were simply outfought and the desire levels couldn't rise to the hunger they saw etched on every Kilkenny face. Appearing in their first All-Ireland semi-final in three years, Kilkenny won the throw-in, then Richie Leahy was fouled in possession and from the free the indescribably good TJ Reid shot over the first score inside a minute. From there they led all the way home.
Reid took home the man-of-the-match award, which won't prompt an official inquiry. He was monstrously influential. At 31, in a young man's game where fitness levels have shot through the roof, he scored eight points, seven of those frees from all angles and distances, missing one you'd have backed him to score without a moment's hesitation. The other score came from a first-half line ball.
But the scoring was only the outline. The real substance and value of Reid's contribution came in general play. When they needed a score he was usually the man to put his hand up and catch a puck-out and lead the way. For all of Kilkenny's fight they still needed that kind of quality to win a match like this.
Limerick, who were nine points down 17 minutes in, got it down to two nearing half-time with an unanswered scoring burst of 1-3 - and would have settled for their interval deficit of just three, 1-12 to 1-9. They were dealt a blow when they lost Declan Hannon at half-time, with Kyle Hayes having dropped back to lend assistance in the first half when Kilkenny - fired up by Colin Fennelly's goal in the 14th minute - were dominating. The veteran finished with 1-3 and set up another point late in the game for Adrian Mullen. His young Ballyhale Shamrocks colleague Mullen finished with 0-4 from play - a Young Hurler of the Year award surely waiting.
Limerick sent on Shane Dowling in the 56th minute, like they did in last year's semi-final when in trouble against Cork, and he almost repeated the trick. His goal, after a slick exchange of passes, came in the 63rd minute and set up a thrilling and tense finale, reducing Kilkenny's lead to two.
At half-time it looked like Limerick had settled and would have Kilkenny's number when the teams came back out. It never happened. Kilkenny kept in front, Limerick unable to draw level at any stage. This match had to be won from a long way out.
Dowling did all he could. David Reidy, another of the Limerick introductions to impress, set up the Na Piarsaigh man for a point with three minutes left to leave the minimum between them. The roar from the Limerick crowd shook the ground but Kilkenny held their composure and kept ferreting.
In the first of five minutes of injury-time Richie English won a free with a burst out of defence, shook his fist, but the long-range free from Diarmaid Byrnes sailed wide. Limerick finished with 15 wides. Kilkenny hit just four in each half. It all proved telling.
An incredible catch by Reid in the next play after Byrnes' miss led to a point for James Maher, which would be their last score. Reidy then had a shot for goal a minute later saved by Eoin Murphy and Huw Lawlor scooped the breaking ball out for a 65 which Byrnes landed. In the final play Darragh O'Donovan went for broke from a sideline ball but it tailed wide at the near post, Limerick claiming that it should have been a '65. They appeared to have a strong case and players surrounded referee Alan Kelly as he left the field.
That final dispute won't delay any honest Limerick post-mortem. They had two more scoring chances than Kilkenny, 25 to 23, but their conversion rate let them down. The familiar polish was absent. They fought desperately but never had a spell of real fluency and in the second half their practice of working the ball out of defence with forwards dropping back deep left them outnumbered up the field.
Aaron Gillane, who struck fear into Kilkenny when the sides met last year, was one of Limerick's best players in the first half and won and scored the penalty near half-time which hauled them back into the game. Graham Mulcahy also ran himself to a standstill. But key players like Kyle Hayes and Cian Lynch never found their groove, a first-half hook by Reid on Hayes emblematic of the play.
In the second half Lawlor got to grips with Gillane, and with an inspirational Pádraig Walsh leading the way in the Kilkenny defence, they put up a massive resistance. Limerick's half-forward line of Gearóid Hearty, Hayes and Tom Morrissey scored one point between then. Hegarty and Morrissey were both taken off. Inside, Peter Casey tried hard but had only one point having hit Tipp for 1-5 from seven shots.
Brian Cody leads Kilkenny into another All-Ireland final. This was his most magnificent hour yet and that is saying something.
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