ALL OF THE hard work has paid off - completing a six-game winning streak has been good enough to send the Kilkenny senior camogie team through to the All-Ireland semi-finals with five weeks to spare.
Spurred on by the management team of Graham Dillon and Niall Williams, together with backroom members John Joe Aylward, Tom Doheny and Liz Dempsey, Kilkenny have become the country’s form team.
Together, the Cats have won six matches out of six over the past seven weeks, a run which included a Leinster final win over Wexford on the June Bank Holiday Weekend.
They made it double over the girls from the Model County, denting their hopes of defending the All-Ireland title, with a magnificent performance at Nowlan Park on Saturday.
Emma Kavanagh has been having an inter-county season to remember. She produced further heroics last weekend at a vital stage in the game.
With Kilkenny leading by seven points Wexford had a chance to get back into the game when Brid Gordon bore down on goal. Gordon had a clear path to the target, but she was brilliantly denied by a point blank stop from the Kilkenny netminder.
It was all change from the beginning of the game. Kilkenny got off to a terrible start as a Fiona Kavanagh goal in the fourth minute gave the All-Ireland champions a 1-1 to 0-0 lead.
However, Kilkenny responded. With Aoife Neary on target four times (frees) the Cats hit back to take a 0-7 to 1-3 lead at the interval.
The James Stephens sharpshooter pointed a free from half-way early in the second half to double the lead. Claire Phelan extended the advantage even further with a point from play in the 37th minute (0-9 to 1-3).
Within minutes the Cats had increased that lead in style, thanks to a superb goal from Shelly Farrell.
Chasing down an inch-perfect long delivery goalwards from Claire Phelan, Farrell cleanly gathered possession in front of goal. Quick as a flash, the Thomastown attacker dashed forward and fired an unstoppable shot past Mags Darcy (1-9 to 1-3).
Wexford rallied with two Ursula Jacob frees, but Ann Dalton steadied the Kilkenny ship with a point from play.
With the game heading for the final quarter, Kilkenny took a big step towards the final four.
Katie Power sparked the move, sending the sliotar goalwards and spreading panic amongst the Wexford rearguard.
Aoife Neary attempted a first-time pull, but the sliotar ball took a nick off Shelly Farrell’s hurley before hitting the net.
After a consultation between the referee and umpires, the goal stood - Kilkenny were motoring (2-10 to 1-5).
True to the form of champions Wexford kept battling away, narrowing the gap in the final 10 minutes thanks to points from Josie Dwyer and Jacob free (2-10 to 1-7).
Kilkenny replied with a point from sub and team captain Michelle Quilty before Wexford substitute Eimear O’Connor and the strong finishing Aisling Dunphy exchanged minor scores. That left Kilkenny seven points clear entering the closing stages. Fiona Kavanagh gave Wexford hope when she flashed home a shot on the rebound, but Kilkenny finished superbly with three injury-time points from Dalton, Neary and Katie Power as they ran out resounding winners.
Defensively, Kilkenny were very impressive. Corner-back Mairead Power continues to grow in stature, while full-back Kate McDonald kept the danger duo of Kate Kelly and Ursula Jacob scoreless from play.
Elaine Aylward scored an excellent point from distance early in the match, and she was an inspiration constantly driving the team forward.
An unsung heroine during Kilkenny’s recent success has been Claire Phelan and she excelled greatly in midfield.
Phelan covered acres of ground. Two-goal heroine Shelly Farrell certainly made her presence felt, while Aoife Neary and Katie Power were menacing throughout.
Meanwhile, there was disappointment for the Intermediates as their championship adventure ended.
Following defeats to Limerick and Waterford in the opening two round of games, victory over Antrim was essential to main their hopes of making the play-offs.
However, the Ulster girls prevailed in a thriller, edging the game by 2-14 to 2-13 to end Kilkenny’s championship prospects.
Kilkenny - Shelly Farrell (2-0); Aoife Neary 0-6 (0-5 frees, 0-1 45); Ann Dalton, Katie Power (0-2 each); Elaine Aylward, Claire Phelan, Aisling Dunphy, Denise Gaule, Michelle Quilty (0-1 each). Wexford - Fiona Kavanagh (2-0); Ursula Jacob (0-5, frees); Josie Dwyer, Shelly Kehoe, Eimear O’Connor, Mags Darcy (0-1 each).
Kilkenny - E. Kavanagh, M. Power, K. McDonald, J. Frisby, L. Fennelly, E. Keane, E. Aylward, G. Walsh, A. Dalton, C. Phelan, A. Dunphy, K. Power, S. Farrell, D. Gaule, A. Neary. Subs: C. Dormer for Walsh, M. Quilty for Gaule.
Wexford - M. Darcy, C. Donohue, N. Lambert, K. Atkinson, S. Sinnott, M. Lacey, S. Redmond, J. Dwyer, Shelly Kehoe, K. Kelly, B. Curran, Stacey Kehoe, B. Gordon, F. Kavanagh, U. Jacob. Sub: E. O’Connor for Redmond.
Referee - F. McNamara (Clare).