A flurry of goal-den punches saw the Kilkenny & District League’s Oscar Traynor team reach the knockout stages - and left Carlow on the canvas.
Manager Ollie Walsh got his Christmas wish four days early as the Cats wrapped up second place in the group, but they had a 90-minute rollercoaster ride to endure before their place in the second phase was assured.
It was an incredible Sunday afternoon in Castlecomer, one where Kilkenny exploded into a two-goal lead and then, almost as quickly, they lost it.
The game seemed to be getting away from them, not least when Carlow pushed for a lead of their own, but all of a sudden a lightning burst of goals swung the tie back in Kilkenny’s favour.
A three-goal barrage, all grabbed inside five frenetic minutes, left Kilkenny cruising and Carlow in a crumpled heap.
Kilkenny’s second attempt to take control of the game started with a real show of pace and precision after 65 minutes. Team captain David Grincell and winger Nathan West led the charge, linking up well before West threaded a delicate ball through Carlow’s central defence.
Grincell used his pace to perfection to surge past the last two defenders. Moving to his right, the captain drew Jeff Moran from his line, then squeezed a low shot beyond the netminder.
The goal, allied to the introduction of Barry Whelan to the fray, was the start of Kilkenny’s big assault on the game. Carlow heads were spinning from that goal, but didn’t get a chance to clear as the hosts took an even firmer grip on the game two minutes later.
Whelan imposed himself on the game within seconds, anchoring the middle third with composure. His pass from the centre picked out Jack Poyntz, who worked the ball down the right channel.
Grincell gave chase, beating the outrushing Moran in a foot-race to possession into the corner. Despite the tight angle the Kilkenny captain found room to roll the ball back across the goalmouth and to the back post, where Andy Kavanagh was waiting to apply the finish.
Grincell was in a real purple patch of form by that stage, and all but secured the result just two minutes later. This time he used his head - literally - to get on the end of Paddy Cahill’s drilled free-kick, glancing the ball inside the far post.
It was an impressive period from the Cats, better even than the blistering start they made to proceedings.
Quick off the mark, they were one up inside four minutes, C.J. Browne swivelling in the box to slam home Conor English’s floated free after the ball broke off Grincell.
Browne showed his strengths at the other end soon after, stretching in to deny Lee Salter a quick equaliser with a vital tackle, but it wasn’t long after that the Cats showed their claws again - and a little cleverness.
Awarded a free for a foul on Grincell, this time on the left corner of the Carlow box, Nathan West and Paddy Cahill stood over the ball. It looked like West would take the free but instead Cahill spotted the smallest gap inside the far post and went for it, using the wall to unsight the ’keeper with a sweetly curled shot that found the net.
Kilkenny looked dominant at that stage. Given the way they had roared into the lead it seemed as if they would run away with the game, especially as a frustrated Carlow began to get drawn into committing fouls.
The visitors did, however, gain a foothold on the game after 22 minutes. Having stepped off the gas, Kilkenny were punished when they allowed Craig Comerford to break from full-back and take play into the opposing half. Caught napping, the Cats failed to pick up Kieran Moloney, who ran to the corner and dug out a perfect cross from which Shane Clarke couldn’t but score.
The goal was a huge spur for Carlow, who quickly grew in confidence. Pushing Kilkenny back into defensive mode they held court in the middle third, something which led to an equaliser on the half hour.
Pegged back after a Clarke attack, Kilkenny failed to deal with the ensuing throw-in. The ball worked its way out to Comerford, who drilled a low shot back into the mix. Netminder Robbie Lynch got behind the ball but couldn’t hold it - when it popped up Criostoir Maher slid in to bundle it home.
The goals rattled Kilkenny, but they regained a little of their composure before the interval. Nathan West created a chance to push his side in front again when he fizzed a dangerous ball across the face of goal, but none of his colleagues could add the close range finish.
Needing a win to progress at Kilkenny’s expense, Carlow were back on top on the restart. Ethan O’Neill had a great chance to give them the lead when he beat his man and sped into the box, but C.J. Browne’s last-ditch sliding challenge saved the day.
That tackle provided the platform for Kilkenny to get their own game back in order, as that three-goal haul proved.
Even with the game seemingly secure, Kilkenny were still hungry for more goals. Subs Steven Connolly and Eoghan Vaughan teamed up to add a sixth in the 80th minute, Connolly pressuring James Sherwood into directing a pass too far beyond Jeff Moran, which gave Vaughan a clean sight at the target.
Although down to ten men by that stage after Mikey Byrne’s dismissal, Carlow refused to yield. They countered with a third goal from Shane Clarke after a Kilkenny free-kick routine broke down, but with three minutes left on the clock they had no hope of staging a dramatic comeback.
Kilkenny & DL: Robbie Lynch, Jack Poyntz, Tommy Earls, Dylan Whearty, C.J. Browne, Paddy Cahill (Steven Connolly, 73 mins), Andy Kavanagh, Michael O’Neill, David Grincell (Eoghan Vaughan, 77 mins), Conor English (Barry Whelan, 66 mins), Nathan West.
Carlow League: Jeff Moran, Liam Byrne, Craig Comerford, Mikey Byrne, Terence Haughney, James Sherwood, Shane Clarke, Criostoir Maher (Jamie Parr, 77 mins), Lee Salter (Daryl Hayden, 56 mins), Ethan O’Neill (Dean Kelly, 77 mins), Kieran Moloney.
Referee: Noel Purcell. Linesmen: Gary Matthews, Tony Walsh (Wexford).