Kilkenny are in the last chance saloon, but they will be drinking in the atmosphere at Nowlan Park on Saturday week as they bid for hurling history.
The players on the intermediate team could be said to be the ‘invisible men’ of the inter-county scene, but they can become very real heroes when they carry the county’s last chance of All-Ireland hurling glory this season when they face defending champions, Tipperary in the decider at Nowlan Park.
“It is a great game for us,” enthused team manager, Pat O’Grady after the Cats booked a place in their sixth successive decider by beating disappointing Galway in the semi-final in Thurles on Saturday.
“We have been waiting to get a crack at Tipperary since they beat us in the final 12 months ago. That is a long time to be feeling hurt.”
Saturday’s win over Galway, attained without much fuss or strain, saw Kilkenny produce a good level of performance, and especially so when remembering that this was their first outing because there was no Leinster championship. Here was a team that came from nowhere, and now it could claim an All-Ireland title.
Used ball well
The winners hurled well; used the ball intelligently yet they left feeling they must and can do better the next time. The fact they didn’t create even the hint of a goal chance is something that will prompt creative thinking between now and the big showdown.
Galway, alas, fell short of the expected standard. They were allowed field senior players, and the group was tagged as a ‘Development Squad’, apparently. A number of the players expected to feature didn’t, so the big swell of hurling power was never there.
And their tactics puzzled, especially during the first half when they played with the fresh breeze blowing into the town end. To be honest, I couldn’t make out their exact formation as it appeared to change from time to time, but the Westerners definitely withdrew a man from the attack.
Sometimes it appeared as if the full-forward line contained one player; other times there were two men there.
All this led to the Kilkenny defence lording it. They mopped up the ball. The players had oceans of time on the ball when getting in clearances, which were generally well aimed, high or low, towards a definite target.
And goalie Richie O’Neill, a former sub on the senior squad, was terrific in his use of possession, much of which fell short and into his hand.
Here was a team thinking on its feet, and it did well to adjust to a challenge that was different, even if it was flawed. But the Kilkenny reaction was impressive.
The half-back trio of Luke Harney (5), Pat Hartley (6) and Michael Moloney (7) dominated, with the middle man often acting as a sweeper goalside of a crowded ‘40’. Behind them Shane Prendergast was excellent. During the second half he was dragged around the place, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t appear to lose a ball.
Call to higher office
Another showing of this magnitude in the final and the Clara man could be getting a call to a higher office. The other two defenders, Sean Cummins and Michael Walsh eased through the challenge.
The most creative of the attackers early on was Conor Phelan, another man with senior inter-county experience. He was exceptional as ball winner, and was the source of several scores for others. As the game wore on speed merechants Joe Brennan - he scored one point from the right sideline that Henry Shefflin or D.J. Carey would have been proud of - and Brian Kennedy thundered into the match and were very prominent, all the time because of a high skill level.
Bill Beckett enjoyed some high moments too, especially during the third quarter, while free taker Rory Hickey did the business in his area of expertise.
From the off Galway looked average. Indeed, early on the fare was generally average, but Kilkenny grew into the game nicely and some of their fast combination play impressed as the contest wore on.
After Neil Keary opened the scoring with a point for the losers, Kilkenny free taker Rory Hickey posted a reply following a foul on David Langton about 40 metres in front of goal. The opening six scores flowed that way, a score for one side followed by one for the other.
Kilkenny regained the advantage in the 18th minute when Rory Hickey - his side’s 7th free - earned the lead point from a free shot, and via a favourable collision between sliotar and upright when the ball fell in on the back on the net (0-4 to 0-3). The Noresidres led all the way home from there.
The next score was picked off by Jonjo Farrell, after running on to a caman driven 40 metre placed pass by Conor Phelan. Next up for a score was Joe Brennan, following a nicely weighted lay-off pass by Farrell (0-6 to 0-3).
The Kilkenny hurling was lovely to watch. There was plenty of movement; plenty of support play; plenty of sharp, fast tackling and some lovely striking.
The winners stylish play was mirrored by Brian Kennedy’s point in the 30th minute, claimed after a dash up the right wing. His striking of the ball while in full flight was pure class. The scoring was rounded off by Jonjo Farrell, which left Kilkenny leaders by 0-9 to 0-4 at the interval.
The losers missed two chances of scorers in the early moments of the new half, one from a free in front of goal. Kilkenny’s first chance fell to David Langton after a ball broke from one of their puck-outs and he pointed from just short of midfield.
Galway hit back in like fashion through Shane Moloney. Hickey, with a strike from midfield after Bill Beckett had been fouled, and Moloney (free) traded points as the game went through an ordinary patch, a stalemate period.
The next four scores were equally divided, which brought us to the 42nd minute with the scoreline reading: 0-13 to 0-8.
In a scoring sense, that was it as far as Galway were concerned. Kilkenny, with the half back trio totally dominant and midfielders, Langton, although tiring, and Brian Kennedy growing stronger, began to charge at the opposition in wave after wave of attack.
In the 46th minute Kilkenny created a score with vision and touch to the fore. Corner-back Shane Prendergast won possession near his post and aimed a low ball up the left wing parallel to the sdieline. Joe Brennan was gifted space to run. He showed a clean pair of heels to his marker before nailing a shot between the posts.
A beautiful score in terms of creation and execution.
A few mintues later the winners went close to getting a goal. Rory Hickey popped a short pass to corner-forward, David Walton, about 10 metres to the right of goal. The James Stephens man managed to get a low shot away, but the ball screamed across the goal and wide.
Still, the Cats had something big to finish off the display nicely. Brennan pointed from a huge distance before Rory Hickey scored from a 65 to leave them handsome and well deserved winners.
The victory earned the county the chance to claim an All-Ireland victory following the demise of the senior, under-21 and minors teams. Tipp won’t be allowed field any of the players who helped them win the title last year, although they are still able to field players from senior club, which Kilkenny are not.
“Whatever people think of this championship, we are in an All-Ireland final and we will give it our best shot to win,” Pat O’Grady promised. “This is a big deal to these players. They love representing the county, and their commitment has been second to none. To win an All-Ireland medal would be nice.”