Ready for the final push!

KILKENNY’S own Nowlan Park on Sunday week can be the gateway and time of entry into the National Hurling League final. The county’s first appearance in the decider since the dramatic win over Tipperary in 2009 is now a mere 70 minutes away.

KILKENNY’S own Nowlan Park on Sunday week can be the gateway and time of entry into the National Hurling League final. The county’s first appearance in the decider since the dramatic win over Tipperary in 2009 is now a mere 70 minutes away.

Possible Leinster championship opponents, Offaly will be the visitors to the ’Park in what is a make-or-break tie for the home side in the last preliminary round series of matches. A win or draw for the Cats would put them into the decider and earn them a shot at winning their 15th title.

“That game has to be won,” was the unequivocal summary from Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody on the upcoming challenge in the wake of Saturday’s testing, exciting and sometimes baffling draw with Dublin in Croke Park.

“The ambition is to win. This League is really competitive. There is one more game to be fought and a place in the League final to be earned.

“We want to be in the League final, and we want to win it. What else would we be playing in the competition for,” asked Mr Cody.

Dublin County Board’s initiative of playing home hurling and football League ties together in Croker ended on a high on Saturday when their camán wielders came back from the dead to share the spoils with the Cats while their footballers scored a win over All-Ireland finalists, Down.

The hurling tie didn’t only kick start proceedings it blasted them into action after a fiercely competitive clash in conditions that were dreadful at the finish. Dublin earned a deserved draw with a great point under pressure from a defiant Paul Ryan in the 74th minute.

Kilkenny 3-11 (20pts)

Dublin 1-17 (20pts)

Scorers: Kilkenny – Matthew Ruth (2-1); Eddie Brennan (1-2); Richie Hogan (0-5, three frees); Michael Fennelly (0-2); Aidan Fogarty (0-1). Dublin – Paul Ryan (1-5, point free, point 65); Conal Keaney (0-5, three frees, one 65); Ryan O’Dwyer, Liam Rushe (0-2 each); Shane Durkin, John McCaffrey, Daire Plunkett (0-1 each).

A mere seconds from win

Kilkenny were the length of time it took to shoot that score and deliver a puck-out from a place in the final……mere seconds. Had they won and taken maximum points, which would have been somewhat against the run of play, they would have slipped into the final.

“It is hard to know if we should be pleased or displeased,” suggested Dublin manager, Anthony Daly afterwards. They shot of 17 wides to go with 19 the previous week, which left them with something serious to think about.

“Early on we appeared to be able to create chances. We hit the bar and hit the post. Maybe we are not taking the right options, but with six or seven minutes to go I would have taken a draw. The game looked gone from us then. We showed great heart to come back,” added the former Clare captain.

Kilkenny, often the Houdini men of hurling, looked like pulling off another daring escape when the man blessed with the golden touch on the day, Matt Ruth fired home his second goal after great approach work by Colin Fennelly, in-hand with an on fire Eddie Brennan at the Hill 16 end. The score arrived in the 57th minute. It put the visitors 3-11 to 1-14 in front, which was only the second time they led.

However, with thunder cracking across the slate grey skies that were shedding rain in buckets, Dublin created their own thunder on the field by blasting into the opposition. Poor option taking at times, their worst during the entire game, meant their all action effort was going to bear fruits slowly, agonisingly so for their fans.

Paul Ryan popped over a 65 in the 65th minute. Three minutes further on a foul on Liam Rushe earned Ryan another score.

Ryan then missed a chance created by Shane Ryan as the tension mounted. The notice board that told us there would be four minutes additional time played was raised on the Hogan Stand side before the Dubs missed a great chance of a goal.

John McCaffrey crossed the sliotar from near the end line on the right. An in-rushing Ryan O’Dwyer failed to get a touch on the edge on the square with only the ’keeper to beat.

There was another wide posted by Ryan O’Dwyer before Paul Ryan hit the target from 45 metre to prompt a thunderous cheer which rocked the old house.

Kilkenny slogged through the closing 13 minutes – 17 with extra time added – without raising a flag. Doesn’t sound impressive, but to criticise would be to miss the point.

A team robbed of golden talent because of injuries was rich in heart and desire, and those qualities more than anything helped keep the League final dream alive.

Dublin are better

You see, Dublin are no longer Dublin of recent vintage. They are better, improved, moving forward at a rapid pace. They too were missing a handful of what we like to call regulars. Yet they conjured up an effort that all but played the visitors off the park during the opening period.

Were it not for a series of Dublin wides – 9 in all – plus a smashing goal from Eddie Brennan in the 37th minute of play in the first half Kilkenny could have been in big trouble at the break. Brennan’s score, after fielding a huge drive from Paddy Hogan in the left half-back position, rounding his man and firing to the net, cut the difference to 1-12 (D) to 2-7 at half-way.

That Eddie Brennan goal could yet change his season. This was the sure firing performance the Graigue-Ballycallan man has been chasing since last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.

He had been average enough early on and was blocked down a few times. After he caught that ball and scored he was a new man, sure of touch, zippy, ever threatening and mad for action. Hopefully the Brennan of old is back!

Dublin deserved better than their slim interval lead. With Ryan O’Dwyer lining out at centre-forward and causing problems all over the park, plus brilliant work, movement and hurling by Conal Keaney, David O’Callaghan and Paul Ryan the Kilkenny defence was dragged and pulled all over the place. The pace of the direct running Dubs caused awful problem, as did their intelligent movement and clever and deliberate use of the ball and hand-pass.

A couple of time the home side had five points to spare, and they were full value for it. Easily it could have been more. Paul Ryan was through on goal after only 100 seconds but he missed his first attempt before firing the ball into the side netting. On four minutes O’Callaghan put a goal chance wide, and later he crashed a fierce shot against the cross-bar.

Made possession pay

With only four minutes gone, Dublin had posted four wides and were stuck on terms (0-1 each). They were moving much better by the end of the quarter when scores from Keaney, Paul Ryan and Liam Rushe helped them into a lead of 0-5 to 0-2.

Working off crumbs up front, Kilkenny made possession pay. Against the run of play they got back level in the 19th minute when Matt Ruth netted, again after good work by Colin Fennelly (0-5 to 1-2).

Dublin took off again after Ryan O’Dwyer fielded a puck-out from their own Gary Maguire before shooting a point. Their best position was achieved in the 33rd minute when Paul Ryan bagged a goal after a terrific piece of possession play involving O’Dwyer and Daire Plunkett (1-11 to 1-6).

There was an exchange of points before Eddie Brennan exploded on the scene.

Half-time: Dublin 1-12, Kilkenny 2-7.

For the new half Kilkenny withdrew Michael Fennelly from centre-forward and placed him at midfield. Eoin Larkin made the reverse journey. Things improved…..dramatically. The Dubs didn’t find it as easy to get at the visitors defence, and anyway that defence was more composed, with centre-back Brian Hogan getting to grips with things, and likewise Paddy Hogan. Later the introduction of T.J. Reid to the midfield/half-roward area added huge power to the drive as he won a lot of ball, especially in the air.

On short rations

In a carbon copy of the goal scoring effort earlier, Eddie Brennan fielded a ball after 36 seconds of the new half but goalie Maguire brought off a brave body block. Kilkenny were up and running. Richie Hogan, who had been off with his free taking earlier, plucked a ball from the sky before shooting a lovely point.

Now the Dubs attack was on short rations. The Cats were relentless. They caught up in the 45th minute when Michael Fennelly finished a move started by a more involved Larkin (1-13 to 2-10). A Ruth point put them in front before Daire Plunkett replied.

The next score was Ruth’s second goal and a 3-11 to 1-14 lead for Kilkenny. It prefaced a great finish to a totally absorbing contest.

Let the word go out….Dublin are the real deal now. With growing belief, these guys are pushing forward strongly.

Kilkenny? The heart is good; the hurling is improving and the survival instinct is very much intact. They were dragged and pulled all over the place, out-run and out played at times, but they refused to go down.

A good day’s work! One looks forward to the next instalment from Eddie Brennan, young bloods Ruth and Fennelly, Michael Fennelly, an improving Noel Hickey, Eoin Larkin, Brian Hogan and company. One suspects there will be League life beyond Sunday week.

Kilkenny – David Herity, Michael Kavanagh, Noel Hickey, John Dalton, Paddy Hogan, Brian Hogan (capt), Conor Fogarty, Paul Murphy, Eoin Larkin, Richie Hogan, Michael Fennelly, Colin Fennelly, Matthew Ruth, Eddie Brennan, Aidan Fogarty. Subs – T.J. Reid for Murphy 42nd min; John Mulhall for A. Fogarty 51st min; P.J. Delaney for C. Fogarty 55th min.

Dublin – Gary Maguire, Niall Corcoran, Peter Kelly, Oisin Gough, Ronan Walsh, Tomas Brady, Shane Durkin, John McCaffrey, Simon Lambert, Conal Keaney, Ryan O’Dwyer, Liam Rushe, Paul Ryan, David O’Callaghan, Daire Plunkett. Subs – Shane Ryan for S. Lambert 48th min; Paul Schutte for O. Gough 58th min; Peadar Carton for D. Plunkett 66th min.

Referee – B. Kelly (Westmeath).