IT WAS TOUGH, tense and there was everything to play for - if this is what the lure of a league semi-final stirs in teams, then bring on the championship!
It may only be the start of April, but neither Kilkenny nor Cork did their Liam MacCarthy hopes any damage when they collided in a cracking Easter Sunday contest at Nowlan Park as the group stages of the National Hurling League grew to a constricting close.
However, Sunday’s result had a very different meaning in terms of league silverware. Kilkenny earned a place in the League semi-finals against Galway on April 21 - for Cork, it’s a relegation final against Clare.
Whatever about their earlier form in the competition, Cork looked impressive on Sunday. They gave their all on the field, exploding with such intensity and pace that at times it caught Kilkenny off-guard, but they simply ran out of steam in the closing stages.
It was that typical stage of the game, when everything was in the melting pot, that Kilkenny clicked into that rhythm of old and whipped the rug from under their opponents. They did it in typical fashion, shrugging off the concession of a goal with a dogged display of hurling that saw them move from two points down to two clear.
The opening scores in that salvo were swift and impressive. Richie Power, a first half sub introduced to help a misfiring forward line, got the ball rolling on 52 minutes when he robbed Stephen White of possession from a quick Anthony Nash puck-out, pausing only to split the O’Loughlin’s End posts from 45 metres out.
That stirred the crowd, who had seen Cork use the short puck-out to good effect up to that stage. It also inspired Power’s colleagues who, for large spells, had been bettered by the Cork defence.
With renewed effort driving them on, Kilkenny kicked on. Colin Fennelly came to the fore, rushing in to block down a Killian Murphy clearance and turn the loose ball into point.
The Kilkenny resistance continued to pour forward, Richie Hogan levelling matters on the hour mark with a fine point despite getting shipping a hefty - and late - challenge in the back. The Cats were finding space all over the ’Park by now, a luxury they hadn’t been afforded before, with Colin Fennelly using a gap on the left to mine a point that edged his side ahead with nine minutes to play (0-16 to 1-11).
Fennelly’s pace was a growing problem as Kieran Murphy found to his cost on 62 minutes, hauling the Kilkenny captain down inside the square after he looked certain to find the net.
It was Kilkenny’s second penalty of the afternoon. Richie Power took it, sending the sliotar over the bar and Kilkenny into a two-point lead - their biggest of the day (0-16 to 1-11).
That Kilkenny would be cheering a two-point lead seemed hard to imagine given the way Cork imposed themselves on the game from the off.
With Lorcan McLoughlin proving to be a driving force in the half-back line a confident Cork defence worked the sliotar down the channels in search of players who could turn possession into scores.
The Rebels had no shortage of those in the early stages, as they proved with a first pot at the Kilkenny target inside 60 seconds. Patrick Horgan almost goaled when he stole in from the left and aimed for the inside of the far post, but Eoin Murphy dived to his left to push the sliotar to safety.
The danger wasn’t fully over, as Murphy and his defence had to cope with the follow-up shot from Luke Farrell. It was a sign that Cork meant business.
The Munster men pushed on, opening their account via Conor Lehane and Horgan (free), all the while keeping the pressure on Kilkenny thanks to netminder Anthony Nash’s ability to find men on the wings with his puck-outs. The Cats lifted the siege long enough to pick off a point through Tommy Walsh, but Paudie O’Sullivan and Stephen Moylan kept Cork ticking along.
While Cork had no problems in attack the same couldn’t be said for the Cats. The Kilkenny forwards struggled to impose themselves on the game, their opponents keeping a firm grip on proceedings in front of their own posts.
The gap was still four points (0-7 to 0-3) as the game moved in the final 10 minutes of the opening half, Kilkenny’s account swelled only by two placed scores from Larkin (free, 65), while Lehane, Moylan and midfielder Daniel Kearney raised white flags for Cork.
Kilkenny still only had one point from play on the board and duly rolled the dice, bringing in Richie Power for Ger Aylward, but that change took time to work. Lester Ryan added a point from midfield to another Larkin free to help close the gap, but the hosts still had to grind out these advances, as they now trailed by two (0-7 to 0-5).
That could have changed when Colin Fennelly sparked into life in the 33rd minute. Seeing a gap, Fennelly blazed through on goal but was hauled down before he could strike. Richie Hogan accepted the penalty duties, but his shot was beaten away by McLoughlin and Nash.
Rather than leave Kilkenny disheartened, the save stung them into action. Larkin whittled another point off the deficit with a free before Fennelly finally opened the forwards’ account from play with a levelling point in injury-time.
It had been a strange half as far as the hosts were concerned, but despite being second best for long spells they still went in level at the break (0-7 to 0-7).
The tight feeling that ended the first half remained present after the restart, as neither team could pull away from each other. Kilkenny, who had spurned some scoring chances, edged in front when Larkin pointed a free from close to halfway in the 45th minute (0-11 to 0-10), but they were rocked when Luke Farrell wriggled free at the corner of the square and lashed home the sliotar from point-blank range.
The goal, which Farrell followed up with a searing point, posed a big question of Kilkenny. Could they come back?
They duly answered, clicking into gear with that scoring run which took them clear. They even stretched the gap out to four points late on as Power, Hogan and Fennelly all plundered points but there was a sting in the tail as Lehane proved when he rattled the Kilkenny net again in the second minute of injury-time.
The game was up for grabs again, but Kilkenny held firm. Michael Fennelly settled the nerves, picking up a loose ball in midfield and sending it thundering over the bar to ensure that all-important semi-final berth.
SCORERS: Kilkenny - Eoin Larkin (0-6, 0-5 frees, 0-1 65); Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly (0-4 each); Richie Power (0-3, 0-1 pen); Tommy Walsh, Lester Ryan, Michael Fennelly (0-1 each). Cork - Conor Lehane (1-3); Luke Farrell (1-1); Patrick Horgan (0-3, frees); Paudie O’Sullivan, Stephen Moylan (0-2 each); Daniel Kearney (0-1).
Kilkenny - E. Murphy, C. Fogarty, J.J. Delaney, J. Tyrrell, T. Walsh, B. Hogan, K. Joyce, L. Ryan, M. Fennelly, W. Walsh, E. Larkin, R. Hogan, G. Aylward, C. Fennelly, A. Fogarty. Sub: R. Power for Aylward, 27 mins.
Cork - A. Nash, K. Murphy, B. Murphy, C. O’Sullivan, L. McLoughlin, C. Joyce, S. White, D. Kearney, P. Cronin, C. Lehane, C. McCarthy, P. O’Sullivan, S. Moylan, L. Farrell, P. Horgan. Subs: M. Cussen for McCarthy, 52 mins; C. Spillane for Kearney, 66 mins.
Referee - B. Gavin (Offaly).