Evolution of 'drive for five'
It was one of the most inauspicious starting points for one of the great journeys in Irish sport.
Cusack Park in Mullingar can hardly be described as a hurling stronghold, but it was there on a Saturday evening in early June 2006 when the first steps were taken on what has been a glorious and, at times, ruthless march to within 70 minutes of sporting immortality in this country.
They were tentative strides in Cusack Park as they dithered with a Westmeath team that would, arguably, be considered the weakest of the 21 teams they have met to this point.
But back then there were uncertain times in Kilkenny. DJ Carey had just announced the end to a magnificent inter-county career and, true to form, the stalwart centre-back for so many years, Peter Barry, quietly slipped away without a hint of fanfare.
Cork were ramping up their preparations for a three-in-a-row and, after the concession of five goals against Galway in the previous year's All-Ireland semi-final, Kilkenny were feeling a little fragile.
True, they had eased their way to a second successive league title, this time beating Limerick in the final. But no one in Cusack Park that night could have predicted what has unfolded over four years and three months.
In 21 straight victories over 10 different counties they have chalked up 42 goals and 461 points to place themselves on the cusp of five successive All-Ireland titles. That's an average of 27.9 points per game, more than 10 points better than an average concession of 17.3 points, 21-303. In eight games they passed the 30-point mark, the highest return being the 3-30 against Waterford in the 2008 All-Ireland final.
In terms of appearances, Tommy Walsh and Henry Shefflin have started every game and only injury has forced Shefflin from the field -- at half-time in the 2007 All-Ireland final against Limerick and the last day against Cork when he lasted 27 minutes before his knee gave away.
In the 'drive for five' Shefflin has played for 1,392 minutes of a possible 1,470.
Walsh is the only player to better that. He was hauled off with one minute left against Westmeath and after 47 minutes in the 2007 All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford. So he has missed just 24 minutes.
Here's a brief reflection of the 21 games to the gates of immortality.
Saturday, June 10: Cusack Park, Mullingar
Kilkenny 1-23 Westmeath 1-9
Where it all began. Eoin McCormack scores 1-3 in the quiet hurling backwater of Mullingar as the odyssey gets under way.
Sunday, July 2: Croke Park
Kilkenny 1-23 Wexford 2-12
Wexford give them more problems than they did in any of their three subsequent matches.
Saturday, July 22: Semple Stadium
Kilkenny 2-22 Galway 3-14
Kilkenny built up a substantial lead, Derek Lyng is sent off on a second yellow card, but they still have five points to spare. Brian Cody cuts loose on the assembled media afterwards for the probing about the late fade. "Do you know what it's like out there," he blasts.
Sunday, August 13: Croke Park
Kilkenny 2-21 Clare 1-16
An early Henry Shefflin goal sends them on their way, but it's only in the second half that they shake off Anthony Daly's Clare.
Sunday, September 3: Croke Park
Kilkenny 1-16 Cork 1-13
The day the dream died for Cork. Kilkenny unveil a tight defensive game plan to stifle Cork's running game. Aidan Fogarty's goal is crucial. Kilkenny win with their lowest score in four All-Ireland finals.
Sunday, June 10: Portlaoise
Kilkenny 1-27 Offaly 1-13
Cody slams referee assessors as his side pull away in the last 20 minutes. "Lunacy," he calls the act of placing examiners in the stands.
Sunday, July 1: Croke Park
Kilkenny 2-24 Wexford 1-12
More of the same for Wexford as Willie O'Dwyer pops up to score 2-2.
Saturday, July 28: Croke Park
Kilkenny 3-22 Galway 1-18
Galway manager Ger Loughnane got the ball rolling in the build-up about Kilkenny's physical approach and it's only in the last 10 minutes that Kilkenny seal it, Eddie Brennan's brace of goals crucial. The match is delayed by a week because of the tragic death of James McGarry's partner in a car accident.
Sunday, August 5: Croke Park
Kilkenny 0-23 Wexford 1-10
Wexford are within five points at half-time, but by the end of the third quarter Kilkenny are 13 clear. Same story so often for so many.
Sunday, September 2: Croke Park
Kilkenny 2-19 Limerick 1-15
They lose Noel Hickey and Henry Shefflin to injury (Shefflin tears his cruciate), but there's enough in the tank to complete the job in the second half. Heavy challenges on Limerick players are highlighted in the aftermath.
Sunday, June 15: Portlaoise
Kilkenny 2-24 Offaly 0-12
Eoin Larkin's scintillating form in 2008 commences in Portlaoise as Offaly are thrown off the coat tails in the last 20 minutes. Shefflin makes his inter-county return and scores 11 points.
Sunday, July 6: Croke Park
Kilkenny 5-21 Wexford 0-17
Wexford were two points adrift at half-time. By the end they had lost by 19. Only 19,000 paid to watch the Leinster championship sink to its knees.
Sunday, August 10: Croke Park
Kilkenny 1-23 Cork 0-17
For 20 minutes they went head -to-head, hip-to-hip. Then Eoin Larkin broke through for the game's only goal and Kilkenny were out of sight. Their best performance up to that point.
Sunday, September 7: Croke Park
Kilkenny 3-30 Waterford 1-13
Their highest score in the five years, their biggest in an All-Ireland final. Every conceivable record went on a day that produced hurling utopia. It was all over after 25 minutes, goals from Eoin Larkin and Eddie Brennan killing it in a whirlwind spell.
Saturday, June 20: Tullamore
Kilkenny 2-20 Galway 3-13
The Leinster hurling championship is back on its feet with Galway's arrival as Tullamore hosts a wonderful semi-final. Galway lead early through the mesmeric Joe Canning, but 10 unanswered second-half points reveal Kilkenny and Larkin at their best.
Sunday, July 5: Croke Park
Kilkenny 2-18 Dublin 0-18
After the highs of Tullamore there's the lull of Croke Park as Martin Comerford's two goals keep Dublin at bay.
Sunday, August 9: Croke Park
Kilkenny 2-23 Waterford 3-15
A modicum of revenge for Waterford as Kilkenny concede their highest score in the five campaigns. Shefflin is in magnificent form, scoring 1-14, 1-6 from play.
Sunday, September 6: Croke Park
Kilkenny 2-22 Tipperary 0-23
One of the finest All-Ireland finals ever sees the greatest hurling team come from behind in a storming finish. Three points entering the last 10 minutes they score 2-3 to land a fourth successive final.
Sunday June 20: Croke Park
Kilkenny 4-19 Dublin 0-12
Aidan Fogarty grabs two goals and Eddie Brennan and Richie Power one each as Dublin's feel the blows from Kilkenny's ruthless gloves.
Sunday, July 4: Croke Park
Kilkenny 1-19 Galway 1-12
A deflating afternoon for the Galway players. One minute they are just four points down, six later the gap has jumped to 10. Game over at the end of the third quarter.
Sunday, August 8: Croke Park
Kilkenny 3-22 Cork 0-19
How close was this first half to their best-ever display? Better than the '08 All-Ireland final first half? They lose Brian Hogan and Henry Shefflin, but Richie Power steps up so impressively. It's this team at their ruthless best as they lead by 2-12 to 0-5 at the break.
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