FROM a long way out Dublin had targeted this match as pivotal to their season and perhaps their future because Kilkenny had to be beaten if they were to win a Leinster Championship. They have over the last few years under Anthony Daly assumed the position of headline challenger without necessarily looking entirely convincing in the part.
Yesterday they went out to show that they had finally crossed that line of rare entitlement few have managed since Brian Cody unleashed a tyrannical reign of black and amber supremacy. But Kilkenny, as they have done so many times before, obliterated those pretensions with another performance of strident and staunch oppression.
Dublin began with promise and purpose, but the colour soon began to drain from them as Kilkenny exerted a suffocating dominance throughout the field. They went in at half-time 10 points up, having scored two fine goals, and at the other end JJ Delaney was majestic, seeing off Liam Rushe and then subduing Ryan O'Dwyer or anyone else who cared step in his way.
In drizzling rain and overcast conditions, on a compact ground with little bounce on the turf, there was a surfeit of body contact; Kilkenny's defence warmed to the challenge and thrived.
Dublin led early on and Danny Sutcliffe scored a wonderful solo point, but the tide turned when TJ Reid combined in a neat loop with Richie Power for the first goal on 16 minutes. By then Conal Keaney had left the field injured, a worrying and cruel fate for a player who worked hard and long to recover from a cruciate injury. With Rushe tied up and Dublin missing good scoring chances, Kilkenny sensed vulnerability.
Dublin scored six goals when the teams met in the league this year at Nowlan Park. Yesterday they never threatened. Under pressure, they coughed up possession 10 minutes from the interval and Colin Fennelly set up Power for a second goal in a phase where Kilkenny posted up 1-4 without reply.
Playing with a wind, Dublin already looked like condemned men. Niall Corcoran was replaced in the full-back line and Conor McCormack from the attack. They were left with a mountain to climb at the interval. No team has come back from such an invidious position to beat Kilkenny in Cody's time. After half-time they never looked in any fear of relinquishing that lead and the gap merely widened. They charge on to another Leinster final where they will meet Galway, a side they routed earlier in the league and also defeated emphatically in the Walsh Cup. An eighth straight provincial win looks imminent.
"We played very well, there's no doubt about that," Cody said afterwards. "The attitude of the players right through the field was very, very good. I'm just very happy with it. The prize is that you get to a Leinster final -- the alternative is the qualifiers. There's no contest."
Daly and his backroom team have an unenviable job in attempting to have Dublin ready for the qualifiers. Even with Daly's reputation and qualifications, an honours degree in overcoming adversity, this is a hefty ask. "We didn't seem to have a go at all," Daly remarked. "That's the most disappointing thing. Being beaten by Kilkenny is not a shock to my system or anyone else's. It's just a shock how poor we were on the day,"
History, recent and distant, didn't favour Dublin, watched by a crowd of just over 12,000. Their last championship win over Kilkenny was 70 years ago. Yesterday marked the fourth consecutive championship loss to Kilkenny since Daly took charge. The margins make grim reading: six points, 19, 11, 18. The areas needing most work are still paramount: cuteness, first touch, precision finishing.
There had been indications of Dublin making ground. A depleted Kilkenny lost last year's league final comprehensively and they found them a handful in this year's regulation match. But in the championship they rarely fail to ignite. As in the league final against Cork, Kilkenny were voracious, their work-rate phenomenal.
Even before the loss of Keaney after 15 minutes (a hamstring suspected, not a recurrence of the cruciate, mercifully) there were signs that Kilkenny were making ominous headway and Delaney, who left to a standing ovation in the second half, was giving an exhibition. Richie Hogan and Power were also outstanding, Power nailing 1-3 and proving a serious headache for Tomas Brady. Reid also chipped in with 1-2 from centre-forward. Henry Shefflin scored a litany of frees, moving into double figures.
Hardly a relief to Dublin's rueful reflections on this defeat will be the awareness that they had their strongest panel available, Brady and Stephen Hiney back in the team, like Keaney, after long-term injuries. While the game marked a return for Shefflin for the first time since the 2011 All-Ireland final, Kilkenny had not been so fortunate generally in that department. But even without Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice, they were on a different level. They will take stopping.
Scorers -- Kilkenny: H Shefflin 0-10 (0-9f, 0-1 65), R Power 1-3, TJ Reid 1-2, R Hogan, P Hogan, E Larkin 0-2 each. Dublin: P Ryan 0-4 (0-3f), D Sutcliffe, D Treacy, R O'Dwyer, A McCrabbe, D O'Callaghan (f) 0-1 each.
Kilkenny: D Herity; P Murphy, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, Brian Hogan, R Doyle; C Buckley, P Hogan; H Shefflin, TJ Reid, E Larkin; C Fennelly, R Power, R Hogan. Subs: N Hickey for Delaney (inj 48), A Fogarty for Buckley (54), M Ruth for Fennelly (57), K Joyce for Walsh (62), J Tennyson for P Hogan (69).
Dublin: G Maguire; N Corcoran, T Brady, P Kelly; S Hiney, J Boland, M Carton; J McCaffrey, S Durkin; C Keaney, R O'Dwyer, D Sutcliffe; P Ryan, L Ryan, C McCormack. Subs: D Treacy for Keaney (inj 15), R Trainor for Corcoran (29), A McCrabbe for McCormack (43), R O'Caroll for Durkin (h-t), D O'Callaghan for Ryan (49).
Referee: B Kelly (Westmeath).
Sunday Indo Sport