U-21 glory heralds bright new dawn in Limerick
Bórd Gais Energy All-Ireland U-21 hurling final: Limerick 0-17 Kilkenny 0-11
With five minutes left Kilkenny crept to within four points of Limerick, a proximity that must have surprised even themselves, and a smidgeon of doubt entered people's minds.
Limerick had the aura of champions all afternoon and now they betrayed a hint of vulnerability. Sensing the threat they swept downfield and hit retaliatory scores from leading marksman Aaron Gillane and substitute Oisín O'Reilly. It was there, the extra gear, when they needed it.
The last score, from O'Reilly, summed up Limerick's hard underbelly. He was hooked twice bearing down on goal but regained possession before splitting the posts and putting the match beyond doubt.
This win in Thurles on Saturday night did not come accompanied by a classic display of hurling and Limerick have played much better this year. They didn't need to be that good to win. But had they been asked to do more they looked eminently capable of doing so.
They end the year All-Ireland U-21 champions for the second time in three seasons. "We were on edge for the last couple of minutes," admitted their manager Pat Donnelly. "The lads played very well. They executed the game-plan to perfection. They played intelligent hurling. There was no panic."
The strong swirling wind in the direction of the town goal made shooting hazardous and ruined the match as a spectacle. It became a hive of rucks and mauls and in most of those Limerick came out with the ball.
They won the bulk of primary possession, presented an impenetrable defence around the commanding Kyle Hayes, and Robbie Hanley gave every ounce of energy in him in midfield. Up front, Gillane hit seven points, five from play, a veritable feast of scoring on a hostile afternoon like this with intermittent showers and a greasy sod.
Donnelly declared himself satisfied with the picture at half-time when his side led 0-11 to 0-4 having played with the wind. "We said at half-time which would we prefer, to be seven up or seven down? To a man, we all wanted to be seven points up. We knew we had the players that would hold up the ball in the inside line. We knew if we could win ball in the middle third and get it into them that they'd to the business."
Eddie Brennan, the Kilkenny manager, offered an honest appraisal of a difficult afternoon. "They were strong in the tackle and that was the difference for me. Players will score when they win the dirty ball and get it out. So that's where All-Ireland finals are about. It's going in where you are willing to get hurt."
In the first half against the warm match favourites, Kilkenny did all they could to keep the score down. They denied Limerick a goalscoring opportunity but the points totted up and seven was a big lead to have to face after the interval.
Alan Murphy came on in the first half and took over the free-taking duties when Shane Walsh went off at half-time, going on to score fives times from dead balls. But they were lacking inspiration in attack. Liam Blanchfield got one point but made little impact, moving to full-forward late in the match when they needed a goal. In all they managed only four points from play. Limerick have had tougher matches, defeating Tipperary, Clare, Cork and Galway along the way, but they still had to deal with the weight of expectation. Three years ago a large number of these players lost an All-Ireland minor final to Kilkenny that they were expected to win. For that reason the victory had added meaning.
A second title in three years and two recent All-Ireland minor final appearances strengthens the belief that they are on the right track.
The trick now is to see if they can translate that into long overdue success at senior level. None of their previous U-21 wins, including the three-in-a-row from 2000-'02, managed to inspire a senior breakthrough.
That blending is already under way, with some of the U-21s blooded in senior championship hurling, and more will now surely follow, starting with the testing ground of the National League in 2018 when the county will be playing in Division 1B.
On Saturday, they had leaders throughout the pitch. One of those, Cian Lynch, didn't see out the match, going off injured in the 39th minute after a hefty challenge left him needing attention. He got back on his feet but clearly wasn't right and Conor Boylan replaced him soon afterwards.
At centre-back, Hayes was what you have come to expect, a powerful ruler, and up front Gillane's scores were supplemented by three more from Peter Casey, two of them top-drawer.
Kilkenny defended well and only coughed up one goal chance, which came in the second half when Boylan got clean through but his low shot didn't have enough conviction and Darren Brennan made a good reaction save to divert the ball over the bar.
But with the wind, Ronan Lynch was still able to hurt Kilkenny with long-range frees, two from near his own '45 in the first half.
Kilkenny almost carved open a goal chance in the eighth minute when Blanchfield caught a Brennan puck-out and made a strong run before offloading but the pass went beyond its intended target and the ball ran wide.
With Gillane and Lynch both striking sweetly, Limerick gradually built up a first-half lead, having trailed to the first score of the game inside the opening minute, scored by Shane Walsh.
By the 46th minute, Limerick had stretched their lead out to eight, 0-14 to 0-4, and while Kilkenny outscored them 0-7 to 0-3 over the remainder, they hadn't the quality to really hurt Limerick even with the wind.
"Limerick had an energy about them today and they just chased down everything," said Eddie Brennan. "I have to say they left nothing on the field."
Scorers - Limerick: A Gillane 0-7 (2fs); R Lynch 0-3 (2fs); P Casey 0-3; C Lynch, B Nash, O O'Reilly, C Boylan 0-1. Kilkenny: A Murphy 0-5 (4fs, 1 '65); S Walsh 0-3 (2fs); B Ryan, L Blanchfield, J Donnelly 0-1.
Limerick - E McNamara 8; S Finn 8, D Fanning 7, D Joy 7; R Lynch 8, K Hayes 9, T Grimes 8; C Ryan7, R Hanley 9; A Gillane 9, B Murphy 6, C Lynch 7; P Casey 8, T Morrissey 6, B Nash 7. Subs: C Boylan 7 for Lynch (inj 39); A La Touche-Cosgrave 6 for Morrissey (47); O O'Reilly 7 for Murphy (53); L Lyons 7 for Nash (62).
Kilkenny - D Brennan 8; M Cody 7, C Delaney 8, N McMahon 7; H Lawlor 7, J Cleere 7, T Walsh 7; L Scanlon 6, B Ryan 6; L Blanchfield 7, S Morrissey 6, R Leahy 6; J Walsh 6, J Donnelly 6, S Walsh 6.
Subs: A Murphy 8 for Morrissey (25); P Lyng 6 for J Walsh (h-t); M Keoghan 7 for B Ryan (42); D Mullen 7 for Leahy (45).
Ref - P O'Dwyer (Carlow)