On a day when the skies cried with a vengeance, Kilkenny used all its craft and experience to see off a gallant Limerick team to reach yet another All-Ireland Final.
Before the ball was thrown in by referee James McGrath we knew that the incessant rain would take its toll on the game and leave players on both sides prone to error.
The best hurlers get to play in Croke Park at this time of the season, but when the elements are at their most unwelcoming mistakes will occur.
Those mistakes resulted in some poor shooting with players also guilty of many unforced errors. However, on a day when both hurleys and sliotars resembled a bar of soap, those errors are easily explained. It is fair to say that tactics, rather than conditions, decided this intriguing All-Ireland semi-final.
It was no surprise that Kilkenny started with an attack altered significantly from the programme. Sunday was a case of hurlers for positions.
We hoped for a better start but it was clear from the outset that inclement weather and lots of tenacious Limerick tackling would make it a difficult afternoon all over the field for Kilkenny.
The huge Limerick following (significantly bigger, it must be said, than Kilkenny’s) were in full voice after two minutes when the impressive Declan Hannon and Donal O’Grady shot a brace of points.
True to form Kilkenny responded when Colin Fennelly, Kilkenny’s best attacker all afternoon, picked up a pass from his brother Michael to get Kilkenny off the mark. Two minutes later T.J. Reid shot over the first of his many frees.
If the conditions were difficult for the players, they were also challenging for the referee who had to make many close calls between genuine fouls or accidental falls on the slippery surface. While supporters may have questioned some of James McGrath’s decision, the Westmeath official had a fine afternoon and let the game flow.
One can say that the closing five minutes of the first half was the defining period. Michael Fennelly, who became more influential as the game ebbed towards the interval, scored a fine point after Kilkenny perseverance. Padraig Walsh added a similar score when he was on hand to pick up a deft pass form Richie Hogan. At that moment Limerick momentarily lost their composure.
It was a one-point game as half-time loomed. The Cats had not looked like raising a green flag but in a typical Kilkenny style Richie Hogan scored a peach of a goal.
The referee twice correctly played advantage to Kilkenny and the Danesfort player shot low, giving Nickie Quaid no chance in the Limerick goal.
As the teams trekked off the pitch one could feel a sense of Limerick disbelief at the sudden turnaround in fortunes.
When Colin Fennelly stretched the lead to three points in the opening minute of the new half we wondered how Limerick might respond. Right then the heavens opened and Croke Park was engulfed in a deluge of biblical proportions. To their credit the Shannonsiders responded brilliantly and were two points ahead by the 54th minute. At that stage they were in control of the game.
When Richie Power got his hurley to Richie Hogan’s long free in the 56th minute to score Kilkenny’s second goal the pendulum once again swung Noreside, but only by the narrowest of margins.
The closing 15 minutes were incredibly tense with both teams putting in an awesome effort. Plenty of mistakes were made but that was inevitable in the conditions.
One can only marvel at the intensity of the play and the ferocious endeavours of the players. It was a real dog-fight to the finish which suited a more experienced Kilkenny.
From a tactical perspective Kilkenny held the upper hand in the closing stages, their blanket-like defence forcing Limerick players into errors and losing possession.
Kilkenny needed Henry Shefflin and especially Richie Power to win this game. On a day when small margins mattered, the strength of the Kilkenny bench was crucial in overcoming a truly gallant Limerick side.
Hurling-wise this was not Kilkenny’s best ever display, but it will rank as one of the bravest and whole-hearted we have witnessed in many years.
Bodies were put on the line in pursuit of victory and we once again marvelled at the incredible appetite of all our players and management. That ‘never say die attitude’ got the team over the line.