THREE WEEKS after losing their Leinster title, the Kilkenny minor hurlers surrendered their All-Ireland crown.
The mission was simple for Adrian Ronan’s side. Having lost to Dublin in the provincial decider, the Cats knew that victory over Waterford was the only way to get back on the path to Croke Park.
They gave their all, but found the roadblock set up by Waterford too much to get past at Walsh Park on Saturday evening.
Backed by a fervent crowd - more than 3,700 supporters flocked to the game - the beaten Munster finalists saw their second chance and took it, showing little charity to their near-neighbours in this quarter-final clash.
Managed by former Village hurler Liam ‘Chuck’ O’Connor, Waterford had a steel that limited Kilkenny at the vital stages. They also had a bit of luck too, never more so than when they stared down a free that could have cut away their lead with 20 minutes to play.
Trailing by three points (0-10 to 0-7), Kilkenny had a chance to get right back into the game when they were awarded a free on the edge of the square. Chris Bolger stepped forward to try and deliver a hammer blow to Waterford’s hopes, but his shot bounced in front of Shane Forristal. The pitch seemed to take most of the sting out of the sliotar, giving the grateful ‘keeper time to clear his lines.
That chance just about summed up what was a frustrating evening for the Cats, who were never able to establish a solid rhythm. Although they hit the ground running, grabbing a point inside 30 seconds via Kevin Kelly’s first free, they were quickly knocked out of their stride by the hosts.
Much of that credit could be taken by Waterford’s half-back line, where Jamie Barron and Darren Foley dominated. The Deise also had the edge when it came to midfield, from where they pushed more ball towards their forwards.
With the lion’s share of possession coming their way, it was no surprise to see Waterford take control of the scoring. They had to wait a while to get their sights trained, taking ten minutes to open their account but two points in 60 seconds from Donal Breathnach edged them ahead.
The Deise stretched that lead to four by the end of the quarter but they also shot six wides in the process, something that ensured Kilkenny weren’t too far behind.
A barren spell of just over 15 minutes was finally ended with another Kevin Kelly free. Incredibly, the point seemed to spur the Cats on, as they suddenly found their form. Another Kelly free was followed by Kilkenny’s first point from play, a fine score from Peter Vickery made by Owen McGrath’s booming clearance that left them trailing by the narrowest of margins with 11 minutes left in the half.
It seemed as if the game would take off after that, but three points in a matter of minutes saw Waterford take the game by the scruff of the neck again, a pair of Jake Dillon frees splitting another fine point from Breathnach.
While Kilkenny tried hard to stay in contention, they began to suffer from Waterford’s early affliction of a rising wides tally. The hosts managed just one more score before half-time, but it was enough to leave them with a comfortable cushion. Gavin O’Brien signalled how everything had run smoothly for the hosts when Aaron Duggan’s puck-out bounced into his grasp before splitting the posts from distance (0-9 to 0-4).
Kilkenny were first out on the field for the second half, and first out of the traps. Needing something big to spark their game into action, centre-back Owen McGrath provided the spur when grabbed a loose ball and turned it into a mammoth point, driving the sliotar over the bar from inside his own 65m line.
Within minutes Peter Vickery had followed suit. Kilkenny’s best forward on the night, the Conahy player used his pace to drive into a gap left wide open by Waterford, then picked off a point before any player in blue and white could close him down.
Waterford looked a little shaky at that stage, almost over-run by a Kilkenny side who were steadily growing in confidence. Trailing by three they almost got a rub of the green when a low Kevin Kelly ball wriggled through a sea of players and was snapped up by Johnny Hayes, but the half-time sub saw his 37th minute shot crash into the side netting.
Relieved at the escape, Waterford rallied. They eased some of the pressure when Gavin O’Brien latched on to Peter O’Keeffe’s pass and turned it into a point, but the gap was back to three when Chris Bolger hit back for the Cats.
Waterford looked to be running out of steam, but were given a reprieve when Bolger’s free was stopped on the line. They began to set about taking control of the game again, firstly through maintaining possession, before Dillon (free) and Ray Barry made it a five-point game with little over ten minutes left (0-12 to 0-7).
Buoyed up by those points, and the roars of the crowd, the hosts set about sealing their win. With Dillon (free) and Breathnach leading the way they stretched their lead to seven with as many minutes left on the clock. Although Kevin Kelly and Peter Keneally chipped late points off that deficit, the writing was on the wall long before the final whistle for Kilkenny.
Kilkenny - A. Duggan (Dicksboro), C. Doyle (Barrow Rangers), J. McDowell (John Lockes), E. Moriarty (Emeralds), J. McGrath (James Stephens), O. McGrath (John Lockes), J. Maher (St Lachtain’s), D. Kearns (Mooncoin), R. Reid (Shamrocks), C. Bolger (Clara), K. Kelly (St Patrick’s), T. O’Hanrahan (Thomastown), D. Cody (James Stephens), C. Martin (Emeralds), P. Vickery (Conahy Shamrocks). Subs: J. Hayes (Kilmacow) for Kearns, 31 mins; P. Keneally (Dunnamaggin) for Martin, 36 mins; E. Bergin (St Patrick’s) for O’Hanrahan, 50 mins; M. Mansfield (Mullinavat) for Reid, 55 mins.
Waterford - S. Forristal, I. Kenny, D. Ahern, C. Walsh, J. Barron, D. Foley, J. Power, S. McNulty, R. Barry, J. Dillon, P. O’Keeffe, G. O’Brien, D. Breathnach, S. Bennett, C. Curran. Subs: M. Harney for O’Keeffe, 55 mins; C. Chester for Bennett, 57 mins; C. Dunford for Dillon, 60 mins.
Referee - C. Lyons (Cork).