Henry Shefflin gets Cats back in the groove
BUSINESS as usual -- Kilkenny are Croke Park-bound in August for a 16th successive year.
Galway raised doubts about their well-being in the Leinster final, presenting Limerick with a template to maximise their prospects of reaching the All-Ireland semi-final but after matching Kilkenny for 45 minutes, they couldn't quicken with the black and amber's sudden burst of acceleration.
Kilkenny outscored Limerick by 2-5 to 0-0 between the 43rd and 56th minutes, effectively killing off a contest that never reached the excitement levels of the opening quarter-final at Semple Stadium. Ultimately, it was a case of Kilkenny gradually winding up for the big press before squeezing the resistance from a Limerick team that learned an awful lot in a progressive season.
Limerick aren't quite top-four material as yet but are making advances under John Allen. It was their bad luck that the quarter-final draw paired them with a Kilkenny team on a pride-retrieval mission after their worst Leinster final defeat for 17 years.
Still, it also presented Limerick with an opportunity to make a bold statement about themselves, a possibility that looked within their range when they headed into the second half only a point behind (2-7 to 1-9) after playing against the wind. However, it all went wrong for Limerick in the third quarter as Kilkenny asserted themselves across every line, setting Limerick an unreachable target.
Kilkenny had to play out the final 12 minutes with 14 men after Richie Hogan was sent off by referee Michael Wadding on a straight red card for pulling across Sean Tobin in a clash near the sideline. It may have looked more serious than it actually was but, after consulting with his linesman, Wadding flashed red.
In terms of yesterday's game it carried no great significance as Kilkenny led by 10 points at the time and were well capable of defending it with depleted forces but it could prove costly next month as Hogan is automatically ruled out of the All-Ireland semi-final clash with Tipperary on August 19.
Kilkenny have concerns too over Richie Power, who was forced off after taking a thumping tackle as he galloped at the heart of the Limerick defence just before half-time.
It was certainly a day he won't remember with any great fondness as he had struggled earlier with his free-taking, driving three wide. Remarkably, the umpires deemed his third effort a point before having their minds changed by the timely intervention of a linesman.
Shefflin took over the free-taking duties but missed two before finally finding his range. He got into his rhythm from open play much quicker, poaching 2-2 off the Limerick defence in the opening 20 minutes. It was a crucial contribution as he was the only Kilkenny forward going really well at that stage, although Aidan Fogarty, Colin Fennelly and substitute TJ Reid would later play their way into the game to good effect.
Shefflin's first goal, scored in the 16th minute, cancelled out David Breen's goal for Limerick four minutes earlier, while his second, in the 20th minute, put Kilkenny a point clear. Still, Limerick would have been quite pleased with their first-half performance, which stretched the Kilkenny defence right to the limits.
Quick deliveries into attacking channels brought Shane Dowling, Graeme Mulcahy and Declan Hannon into play quite regularly and if the passing had been a little more accurate Limerick might well have got in for a few more goals. However, it was all very different in the second half as Kilkenny secured the approach routes, with Tommy Walsh, JJ Delaney and Kieran Joyce especially effective.
They had conceded a rather needless point late in the first half when goal-keeper David Herity was penalised for being outside the small square with a puck-out and, from the resulting throw-in, Hannon pointed. At the time it looked quite significant, suggesting that it could turn out to be one of those days when the vital breaks went against them.
Kilkenny must have harboured concerns at half-time because they hadn't really hurled with anything like the fluency one would have expected as they sought to put the memory of the Leinster final defeat behind them.
Their fans had travelled in large numbers to support them in the championship re-launch but it was their Limerick counterparts who felt happier at the break. Eoin Larkin put Kilkenny two points clear on the re-start but David Breen and Tobin fired over excellent points to bring the side level.
It was at that stage that Kilkenny's vast experience and craft made a decisive intervention. Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice asserted themselves around midfield; the half-back line closed down their opponents and when the ball was worked forward, Shefflin and Co had the measure of the Limerick defence.
Kilkenny scored four points before killing off the game with goals from Fogarty and Colin Fennelly in the 54th and 56th minutes respectively.
Limerick's challenge had been squashed and not even the bonus of an extra man could inspire them on the run-in. They won plenty of possession but couldn't manoeuvre their way close enough to get strikes at Herity in the Kilkenny goal.
So then, Kilkenny's re-organisation is going to plan but they will know that a much-improved performance will be required if they are to beat Tipperary. However, that's for another day while yesterday was all about re-establishing a rhythm after being blown well off course by Galway.
Shefflin continues to come ever closer to the imperious presence he can be at his very best; Walsh had his most effective game of the season while Michael Fennelly, Rice and Delaney will benefit from the outing as they play their way back after injuries.
In a sense then it was a workmanlike performance by Kilkenny, one that will definitely stand to them. Their supporters would have liked a more coherent structure in the first half but with Limerick unloading so much energy into their game in that period it was never going to be easy for Kilkenny.
However, they kept their patience and when the opportunities arose in the second half, they finished them with aplomb. Kilkenny have taken a different route than usual to the semi-final but that's no concern now. They're back on track and looking very much like a side who will improve. That's ominous for the other three contenders as Croke Park in August beckons.
Scorers -- Kilkenny: H Shefflin 2-6 (4f), C Fennelly, A Fogarty 1-2 each, R Power 0-2 (1 '65' 1f), T Walsh, R Hogan, M Fennelly, E Larkin 0-1 each. Limerick: S Dowling (3f), D Hannon (2f) 0-4 each, G Mulcahy 0-2, D Breen 1-1, N Moran, P O'Brien, S Tobin, K Downes, T Quaid 0-1 each.
Kilkenny -- D Herity 7; P Murphy 7, JJ Delaney 8, J Tyrrell 7; T Walsh 8, K Joyce 7, R Doyle 7; M Fennelly 7, M Rice 7; R Hogan 6, R Power 7, A Fogarty 8; C Fennelly 8, E Larkin 6, H Shefflin 9. Subs: TJ Reid 7 for Power (35+3), M Ruth for Fogarty (66), C Buckley for Larkin (66).
Limerick -- N Quaid 7; S Walsh 6, R McCarthy 8, T Condon 7; W McNamara 7, D O'Grady 6, G O'Mahony 6; J Ryan 6, P O'Brien 7; D Hannon 7, S Dowling 7, D Breen 6; G Mulcahy 7, N Moran 6, S Tobin 6. Subs: S Hickey 7 for Condon (37), K Downes 7 for Breen (56), P Browne 6 for Dowling (60), T Quaid for Tobin (64).
Ref -- M Wadding (Waterford)