Gardiner philosophical after Cork endure physical lesson
James McGrath might have sensed the glare of quite a few more eyes than usual as he stepped out on to Semple Stadium yesterday evening to take charge of his first ever hurling league final.
His refereeing brethren have been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks by some of the game's sideline titans -- not for anything specific, but for how they conduct their business in general.
First Davy Fitzgerald with his assertion that the impoverished rarely get the right change back from officials; then Brian Cody producing a variation of his most pronounced script that referees are being placed in "straitjackets" and being asked to officiate in a way that takes from hurling's most primal features.
It was hardly a day to be road testing either theory, though the relevance of refereeing diminishes in the face of such a winning margin. For a start, Cork can hardly be bracketed as impoverished or downtrodden, even if they might have felt that way at any point from about 4.10 onwards.
No obvious calls of any great significance went against them -- they were very much authors of their own downfall as the impact of Donal Og Cusack's absence on a big day was so keenly felt.
John Gardiner did hint afterwards at a few "breaks" going Kilkenny's way in the first half that allowed them to accumulate so much momentum. Yet, the free count stood 15-11 in Cork's favour at the final audit.
"Typical of a Cork-Kilkenny game," he mused. "You play a different game and you get frees for some of the stuff. Some of the stuff you don't get frees for. We're not complaining. I don't want you to pick it up that way. We just have to come up to that level.
"It suited them. We're not going to give out about it, but a couple of decisions could have gone our way the same way as it went their way in that first half. It seemed to be all flowing down their direction."
Cork selector Seanie McGrath saw it differently, though.
"He's a good referee, McGrath. We couldn't have any qualms. We have to deal with their intensity. Their tackling was just ferocious. Whether it was high tackling or what, our fellas just couldn't cope with it. They're good at it. At times we ran into the tackle instead of leaving it go a bit earlier," he said.
A more forensic look may be able to tease out the basis of Gardiner's debate, but on the face of it, this wasn't a game won in the trenches or by any dark arts.
Cork had presented a stern physical test for Kilkenny when they visited Pairc Ui Chaoimh in March and Gardiner sensed the Cats had that afternoon in mind as they steamed into the opening 20 minutes with a ravenous appetite that quickly derailed the Jimmy Barry-Murphy revolution.
"They got a bit of a rude awakening in Pairc Ui Chaoimh and you could see it there. They weren't going to lie down. They were very, very physical," said Gardiner.
All the time, McGrath was able to maintain a discreet presence as Kilkenny's economy of touch, speed and precision built an unstoppable momentum against the vulnerability of the Cork full-back line, haunted by Cusack's absence.
Do Kilkenny really need certain 'conditions' in which to produce their very best hurling? On the evidence of the first half, they need it to go as fast as it can without interruptions, and McGrath was more than happy to let play 'evolve' in the opening 20 minutes.
Much of what Kilkenny did was within the boundaries of the rules.
McGrath missed a couple of opportunities to produce cards -- Matthew Ruth's drive at Eoin Cadogan in the first half and Conor O'Sullivan's hurl across Richie Hogan's legs at a throw-in early in the second half being cases in point.
But cards were produced to Kilkenny defenders JJ Delaney and Paul Murphy as half-time drew near as Delaney pulled Conor Lehane by the shoulder to prevent a goal opportunity and Murphy grounded Patrick Horgan as he went by him. Cynical perhaps, clever if you are of black and amber hue.
Cork's problems stemmed from the ferocity of Kilkenny's tackling. Pa Cronin was repeatedly hunted down in the opening half and coughed up possession when Brian Hogan bundled him to start the move for the second goal.
Nothing reflected the Kilkenny approach more than one of Colm Fennelly's second-half points. Gardiner found himself under pressure inside his own 65-metre line from four opponents. The ball spilled to Fennelly, who punished Cork to make it 3-16 to 0-9.
For Cork, the result is even worse than the Nowlan Park massacre three years ago -- Denis Walsh's first game in charge -- because the circumstances are so different.
Barry-Murphy's second coming has really excited hurling people in Cork and beyond, but his pleas for the league to be looked at in a wider context than just this final will be ignored now.
• WATERFORD hurlers have suffered a blow as Pauric Mahony has been ruled out of the summer with a groin injury.
Mahony (19) scored 12 points from frees in Waterford's final two Allianz NHL matches. But the Ballygunner attacker, who made his championship debut last June, underwent surgery over the weekend and is out for four months.