Wily old Cats rip up form book to secure final date after Treaty comeback just falls short
Kilkenny 1-21 Limerick 2-17
Kilkenny defied the odds, and the form book, to knock All-Ireland champions Limerick out of the race for the Liam MacCarthy Cup at Croke Park last night.
The Cats put in a stirring display to reach their first final since 2016. In next month's decider, Brian Cody will take charge of Kilkenny in an All-Ireland final for the 18th time - which includes two replays.
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Though he has managed Kilkenny to 35 major titles, including 11 All-Irelands, this was arguably his greatest ever coaching achievement. His imprint was stamped all over this Kilkenny triumph.
As team captain TJ Reid put it, their "savage" work-rate, never-say-die attitude and unwillingness to yield finally saw them over the line.
The game ended in controversy, though, as Limerick had cause to feel aggrieved at the death when TV replays showed a sideline effort from Darragh O'Donovan was deflected over the endline for what should have been a '65. But it wasn't awarded and Kilkenny survived.
Limerick manager John Kiely said they were aware Darragh O'Donovan's sideline had taken a deflection.
"We knew straight away. We could see by the flight of the ball, it was taking a certain flight, it changed, it flew off to a different angle. We knew it was after taking a touch, what can we do? The crowd on that side of the field, you could see from their reaction. It was obvious that something had happened."
For long spells of the third quarter Kilkenny looked on the brink of buckling as Limerick finally produced glimpses of their best form. However, their finishing was suspect all through the game and ultimately cost them dearly as they hit 15 wides compared to eight for Kilkenny.
Crucially, Limerick never drew level and though a wonderful 63rd-minute goal from substitute Shane Dowling left two points between the sides, Kilkenny held out. Reid displayed immense leadership at the end, winning a puck-out and setting up substitute James Maher for what proved to be the winning point. Though it was Kilkenny's only score in the final 15 minutes, it was enough.
Kilkenny's journey to the decider has been unique - they were beaten in Leinster by Galway and Wexford, and they also drew with the Model County in the round robin. The teams could meet for a third time in the decider if Davy Fitzgerald's team beat Tipperary in today's second semi-final.
Backed by the breeze, Kilkenny were quickest out of the blocks and hit 0-3 in the first four minutes as Limerick looked lethargic after their four-week break since the Munster final. Gradually, a pattern emerged as the Kilkenny half-back line of Conor Fogarty, Pádraig Walsh and Paddy Deegan dominated the battle for Nickie Quaid's restarts. With TJ Reid imperious with his free taking, Cody's side had built a 0-7 to 0-2 advantage by the 13th minute and the huge Limerick following among the attendance of 55,001 were silenced.
Worse was to follow for the defending champions in the 14th minute when Colin Fennelly won a monster puck-out from Eoin Murphy and rounded Sean Finn before batting the sliotar past Quaid.
Gradually the worm turned, with Kilkenny's intensity levels dropping slightly and Limerick beginning to find more space and winning more of Eoin Murphy's restarts.
It wasn't until the start of the second quarter that they managed to clock up back-to-back scores.
By the 26th minute Kilkenny were seven points in front, but then Limerick hit their best patch, 1-3 without reply. The goal came from an Aaron Gillane penalty on the stroke of half-time after Huw Lawlor fouled Gillane, who was the only Limerick player winning his individual battle. But, crucially, Richie Hogan replied with a Kilkenny point before the break to leave his side three up at the break (1-12 to 1-9).
Even though Colin Fennelly increased Kilkenny's lead immediately after half-time, it was Limerick who bossed the third quarter as the Cats' energy levels dropped.
Crucially, though, they were able to stay in touch with teenager Adrian Mullen - who hit 0-4 from play - and Fennelly (1-3 from play) keeping the scoreboard ticking over.
Still, by the 48th minute, Limerick had narrowed the gap to a single point, 1-15 to 1-14, but they simply couldn't manufacture an equaliser.
Pádraig Walsh thundered into the game but Limerick's tactics of not pouring more men forward was puzzling, as by then their half-back line was finally winning Murphy's restarts.
Kilkenny hit four crucial points - two each from Fennelly and Mullen - between the 54th and 61st minutes to extend their lead to five as both teams emptied their benches. Again, Limerick seemed to have the edge here, with their replacements outscoring the Kilkenny subs 1-2 to 0-1.
When Dowling hit Limerick's second goal after a pass from Kyle Hayes - who was anonymous up to that point - it seemed that Limerick would do to Kilkenny what the Cats had done to so many sides for years in championship hurling, and snatch it at the death.
But teams coached by Cody know how to close out matches.
Limerick failed to score from play after they got their goal, and though Diarmuid Byrnes' long-range free and '65 set up a thrilling finish, it was Kilkenny who held on to book their place in yet another decider.
Scorers - Kilkenny: TJ 0-8 (7f, 1 sideline), 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 (1-0 pen, 6f), S Dowling 1-0, G Mulcahy, D Byrnes (1f, 1 65) 0-2, 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 Hogan (46), B Ryan for Donnelly (52), L Blanchfield for Fennelly (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 (ht); S Dowling for Hegarty (55), D O'Donovan for O'Donoghuye (57), D Reidy for T Morrissey (63), P Ryan for Casey (67).
Referee: A Kelly (Galway).
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