Richie Power on target to steer Cats into final yet again
Kilkenny 2-13 Limerick 0-17 (All-Ireland SHC Semi-Final)
The men for all seasons are in familiar autumn pose.
Kilkenny were tested on every available front and responded with characteristic resolve, wearing down Limerick on the energy-sapping run-in of an All-Ireland semi-final which had to be tailored specifically by both teams to deal with the intermittent downpour.
The floodlights were switched on midway through the first half and became even more necessary in the second half as the sky darkened to near-black, unloading its content in torrents.
It placed unreasonable demands on the players, but they reacted superbly, battling through the awful conditions with relentless endeavour. Ironically, Limerick's best spell came during the worst of the weather in the mid-section of the second half.
They scored five unanswered points between the 44th and 55th minutes to turn a three-point deficit into a two-point lead and present Kilkenny with the ultimate test of their resilience.
It's an area of their game where they have always excelled and, once again, they applied themselves with a resoluteness that proved too much for Limerick.
Limerick scored only one point in the final 15 minutes, while Kilkenny added 1-2, the goal coming in the 56th minute off a deft flick from Richie Power under a long-range free from Richie Hogan. Eoin Larkin was also in the vicinity as the ball crossed the line for what proved to be the tie-breaker.
TJ Reid pointed two more frees, while Limerick's sole reply was a 62nd-minute point from the impressive Declan Hannon, taking his total to five.
Having scored five points in 11 minutes to reach 0-16, Limerick would expect to have taken their total to at least 20 points by the end, but it wasn't to be as Kilkenny secured the defence. It was gritty defiance at its best as defenders hurtled into challenges with shuddering force and, while Limerick were equally brave at the other end, Power's goal had robbed them of the initiative.
Kilkenny would almost certainly have had a second goal in the 66th minute when Power, who made quite an impact as a sub, was tripped by Donal O'Grady as he bore down on goal. O'Grady was already on a yellow card and should have been sent off, but referee James McGrath took no action other than to award a free, which Reid pointed.
It closed out the scoring on a day when Limerick delivered an altogether different level of performance to last year when they capitulated easily against Clare. They resisted much more stubbornly yesterday, out-slugging Kilkenny at various times. They were also much more economical, especially in the first half, when they recorded only one wide, compared to Kilkenny's eight.
Kilkenny were unusually wasteful in the first half hour and, with five Limerick forwards having scored from open play in the opening 15 minutes, the game was progressing nicely for TJ Ryan's confident adventurers.
They led by three points on three different occasions in the opening 30, before suffering a serious setback in the run-in to half-time. Michael Fennelly and Pádraig Walsh pared back two points for Kilkenny before Richie Hogan, who was excellent, fired an opportunistic goal in stoppage time.
So instead of taking their half-time refreshments from an advantageous position – as looked likely some minutes earlier – Limerick trailed by 1-9 to 0-10. They were unfortunate not to score a goal just before the half-time whistle after Kilkenny goalkeeper David Herity knocked the ball down from just over the crossbar.
Luckily for Kilkenny, they scrambled it away. They extended their lead to three points early in the second half and briefly looked as if they had settled into a high-tempo rhythm, which might prove too much for Limerick.
However, as the deluge cascaded down, Limerick raised their game most impressively, striking a series of excellent points.
It left Kilkenny with a real challenge, but, as they have done so often in the past, they worked their way through it, calmly and precisely. The arrival of Richie Power and Henry Shefflin in attack for Mark Kelly and Walsh brought more pressure on the Limerick defence, while, further afield, Kilkenny increased their win share of the 50-50 tussles.
Ultimately, Kilkenny's ability to play their way through any type of game provided crucial. On a day when the overall scoring rate was likely to be lower than usual, goals were always going to be crucial and, in that area too, Kilkenny were the masters.
The timing of both goals was also significant, the first arriving just before the break to wipe out Limerick's slender lead and the second slotting in at a point in the second half when momentum was crucial.
Limerick were going extremely well at the time, hurling with impressive self-assurance, only to have it punctured by Power's goal. It was all so typical of Kilkenny, who are unrivalled when it comes to grabbing goals when most needed.
The final 15 minutes were very disappointing for Limerick. Hannon's point, fired over after an excellent blockdown, looked as if it might be the catalyst for a powerful finish, but, instead, it turned out to be their final score.
Big games are rarely won off such a barren finish, but then Limerick were up against the best in the business at closing out games. Irrespective of how much Kilkenny win, they continue to have an insatiable desire for further success.
That was vitally important yesterday. Limerick would have exploited even the tiniest chink in Kilkenny's determination armoury, but it just wasn't there.
Having scored more often than Kilkenny, Limerick will feel deeply frustrated over losing, but, as happened against Cork in the Munster final, they couldn't get in for a goal which might have made all the difference. They had some chances, but didn't exploit them.
For all that, they have made considerable progress since the traumatic days of April when Donal O'Grady quit as joint-manager. It looked most unlikely at that stage that they would be running Kilkenny so close in an All-Ireland semi-final four months later, so they deserve real credit for the determined and effective manner in which they rebuilt their season.
It wasn't enough to beat Cork or Kilkenny, but, then, many other counties would face a similar fate against that powerful duo.
Meanwhile, it's back to business as usual for Kilkenny after last year's aberration when they exited the championships at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage.
Based on the sense of obsession they brought to their game when Limerick put it to them in the second half yesterday, last year's experience hurt them greatly. They just weren't going to take no for an answer this time and were rewarded with a victory which booked them in for a 13th All-Ireland final in the Brian Cody managerial era.
Scorers – Kilkenny: TJ Reid 0-5 (5f), C Fennelly 0-4, R Hogan, R Power 1-0 each, P Walsh, M Fennelly 0-2 each. Limerick: S Dowling 0-7 (4f, 1 '65'), D Hannon 0-5, G Mulcahy 0-2, D O'Grady, D Breen, S Tobin 0-1 each.
Kilkenny – D Herity 7; P Murphy 7, JJ Delaney 7, J Tyrrell 7; J Holden 6, B Hogan 7, C Buckley 7; R Hogan 9, C Fogarty 7; M Fennelly 7, C Fennelly 8, P Walsh 7; M Kelly 6, TJ Reid 7, E Larkin 7. Subs: H Shefflin 6 for Kelly (52), R Power 8 for Walsh (53).
Limerick – N Quaid 7; T Condon 7, R McCarthy 7, S Hickey 8; P O'Brien 6, W McNamara 6, G O'Mahony 7; J Ryan 6, P Browne 7; D Breen 7, D O'Grady 7, D Hannon 8; S Dowling 8, K Downes 5, G Mulcahy 7. Subs: S Tobin 7 for Downes (40), T Ryan 6 for Breen (62), N Moran for O'Grady (67).
Ref – J McGrath (Westmeath).