Empire strikes back as Brian Cody's Kilkenny end Limerick's All-Ireland reign in Croke Park classic
Kilkenny 1-21 Limerick 2-17
EIGHTEEN minutes into this evening’s All-Ireland hurling semi-final in Croke Park, everything for Kilkenny looked not just hunky, but dory as well.
Seán Finn, Limerick’s usually unflappable corner-back, had just flapped hard enough to force TJ Reid to the ground in a desperate and successful bid to prevent the Kilkenny captain ramraiding his way to goal.
He tapped over the free and a sort of stunned excitement took hold of GAA headquarters as Kilkenny led by 1-8 to 0-2.
How big, we wondered, was too big to claw back?
Limerick, having been granted the four weeks of competitive idleness given to the Munster champions, seemed stuck in a gear unlikely to get them to half-time quick enough to have anything to play for.
In that first eighteen minutes, they were savaged on their own puck-outs on almost every occasion Nickie Quaid went long.
Colin Fennelly had struck a Kilkenny goal through the most direct route possible – a long Eoin Murphy restart he gathered and ambled inside Mike Casey before batting home.
Declan Hannon meanwhile, had been rendered obsolete by the cleverness of Kilkenny’s passing.
Aaron Gillane looked like he could catch fire at any minute but his problem was one of supply.
Soon after, John Kiely dropped Kyle Hayes to do a man-marking job on Reid.
And gradually, Limerick chipped away, recalibrating that clinical, pragmatic hurling that made them such emphatic Munster champions.
They were still four points down in the 34th minute when the dynamic of the game changed entirely.
Full-backs wrapped their arms around their men as a ball drop towards the square every as a matter of course but today in Croke Park, Alan Kelly decided Huw Lawlor’s cradling of Gillane was worth a penalty.
Gillane rifled it past Eoin Murphy and the half-time gap was negligible.
The presumption then was that Limerick’s deep bench would see them home.
Limerick were champions, after all.
And Kilkenny were in a lull, after all.
But time and again, the All-Ireland champions’ inaccuracy cost them.
On three occasions early in the second half, Limerick had the chance to land the psychological haymaker of levelling the game.
Each time, they put the ball wide.
And for all their bone-crushing physicality around the middle third, Kilkenny found a way of circumventing the torment and going direct, testing the newly-anointed greatness of the Limerick full-back line.
Adrian Mullen pinched four points from play. Colin Fennelly scored 1-3.
And then, from almost nowhere, Shane Dowling scored Limerick’s second, the last strike in a surging running move from deep, hoisting and batting the ball past Murphy like a tennis player executing a textbook smash at the net.
Having trailed since the first minute, Diarmuid Byrnes had the chance – again – to get Limerick’s leveller with a free from his own half.
And just after James Maher put Kilkenny two up, Murphy made a great save with his body from David Reidy.
Five minutes of injury-time.
Byrnes brought it back to a point with a ’65 and right on the stroke of full-time, Darragh O’Donovan had a crack from a sideline to level it.
He missed, although the holders rightly claimed it had gone out off a Kilkenny hurl.
Their pleas were to no avail and Limerick’s stint as hurling’s darlings were over.
The empire had struck back.
SCORERS – Kilkenny: TJ Reid 0-8 (7f, 1 ’65), C Fennelly 1-3, A Mullen 0-4, W Walsh 0-2, P Walsh, J Donnelly, R Hogan, J Maher 0-1 each. Limerick: A Gillane 1-9 (0-7f, 1-0 pen), S Dowling 1-0, G Mulcahy, D Byrnes (1’65, 1f) 0-2 each, T Morrissey, P Casey, B Nash, D Reidy 0-1 each.
KILKENNY: E Murphy; P Murphy, H Lawlor, J Holden; C Fogarty, P Walsh, P Deegan; C Browne, R Leahy; J Donnelly, TJ Reid, W Walsh; A Mullen, C Fennelly, R Hogan. Subs: C Buckley for Leahy (34), B Sheehan for R Hogan (46), B Ryan for Donnelly (51), S Dowling for Hegarty (56), L Blanchfield for W Walsh (64), J Maher for Fogarty (67),
LIMERICK: N Quaid; S Finn, M Casey, R English; D Byrnes, D Hannon, D Morrissey; C Lynch, W O’Donoghue; G Hegarty, K Hayes, T Morrissey; A Gillane, G Mulcahy, P Casey. Subs: B Nash for Hannon (h-t), D O’Donovan for O’Donoghue (58), D Reidy for T Morrissey (64), P Ryan for P Casey (67).
REF: A Kelly (Galway)