THEY made it through the back door, but it took a little patience, flashes of vintage form and a little good fortune before Kilkenny could kick their way into the All-Ireland senior hurling semi-finals.
Normally, a nine-point win over the opposition might be heralded as a mammoth victory, but Kilkenny were made to fight for most of the afternoon by a Limerick side with nothing to lose.
In the week before Sunday’s game in Semple Stadium, much of the talk was about when, not if, Kilkenny met Tipp in the final four. That was music to Limerick’s ears, as they were able to come into the quarter-final as a quiet underdog.
It was as if that pre-match hype had also filtered through to Kilkenny who, for the second game in succession, were expected to win at a canter.
As it was, they made a slow start, a matter which wasn’t helped when Richie Power drove three frees shy of the posts – wides from a player who is normally so deadly accurate.
The last of the three frees, roared wide by the Limerick supporters on the Town End terrace – but only after the intervention of the linesman – made it look as though the nerves from the Leinster final defeat to Galway were still there.
Were the Cats still in shock after losing their provincial title?
Any nagging doubts Kilkenny supporters may have had were increased when David Breen stormed forward and rattled the net on 12 minutes.
At that stage flashbacks of the game in Croke Park flashed into the mind. Limerick - like Galway - were finding all the space and getting the scores.
Were Kilkenny done for?
As it happened, that question was answered with two Henry Shefflin goals in eight minutes. The first was followed by a clenched fist celebration – and maybe an element of relief from the Ballyhale man too. He celebrated even more after the second strike, quietening the Limerick fans with a roar of his own after drilling the sliotar past Nickey Quaid.
The two goals looked as if they would propel the Cats on to the next level, but they couldn’t shake off Limerick just yet. Quaid played his part, stopping Richie Power’s point-blank shot, while Shane Dowling and Declan Hannon – albeit after an eagle-eyed umpire spotted the sliotar had dropped over, despite David Herity’s best efforts – shaved a few more points off the deficit.
There was just a point in the game at half-time (2-7 to 1-9). The scoreline reflected how hard Limerick had fought, but there was an element of how Kilkenny hadn’t hit top form.
It wasn’t until the second half that the Cats really showed what they were made of. Much of that came through the introduction of T.J. Reid, who added an extra element to the attack.
Unfortunate to lose his place in the starting side, Reid brought that composure Kilkenny needed in the half-forward line, winning plenty of possession while also using great vision to pick out colleagues in better scoring positions.
Kilkenny did get a helping hand though, as a tiring Limerick conceded three needless frees in quick succession. The opener led to a Colin Fennelly point, while Shefflin converted the remaining brace to open up a four-point lead (2-12 to 1-11) by the 51st minute.
That was a vital gap, giving Kilkenny enough breathing space in a physical game.
If the four points were like jabs to the body, the two-goal salvo inside 60 seconds were the uppercuts that finished the contest. Aidan Fogarty and Colin Fennelly were ruthless in their application, the corner-forwards giving Quaid no chance with two blistering strikes.
That was it – the job was done. Not even the dismissal of Richie Hogan could throw Limerick a big enough lifeline to get back into the reckoning.
In the end, Kilkenny’s explosive scoring played a huge part in seeing them get back into the All-Ireland semi-finals. Digging deep, they clicked into the groove of old as they cut through Limerick and reasserted their mantle of champions.
As an aside, if Limerick are looking to find a reason for their defeat, they could look at one negative aspect of their game. Countless times over the 70 minutes aimless clearances from their defence played right into Kilkenny’s hands. The Munster men won plenty of possession, but time and again they resorted to driving the ball downfield rather than putting an address on it.
In the half-time mini game, one young hurler in a Kilkenny jersey raced on to the ball out on the right, but before releasing the sliotar he took a quick look up to see where his team-mates were. It was a split-second thing, but one that spoke volumes.
That young hurler didn’t waste possession. Limerick could learn from him.