Kilkenny 0-21, KIlkenny 1-13
THIRTEEN might be unlucky for some - not if you’re Rory Hickey.
The Kilkenny free-taker was the epitome of accuracy, hitting the target 13 times in succession as Pat O’Grady’s intermediate hurlers booked their place in an All-Ireland final with Tipperary.
Hickey had a great return from his frees as the Cats got the better of a youthful Galway, but his haul wasn’t surprising to manager O’Grady.
“Rory is very professional in the way he prepares for a game,” he said. “He was at the pitch in Tullamore the evening before the game practising his frees. That tells you everything you need to know about him. He’s a great player who has more great things coming to him in the future.”
Hickey might not be the only one with future rewards in his grasp - the Cats now have the chance to end their year with precious All-Ireland medals, having battled past a young Galway in O’Connor Park, Tullamore on Saturday.
Galway, in their first outing of the year, made a fine start. Captain Niall Healy gave them a real boost when he drilled a 25-metre free past five Kilkennymen stationed on the goal line, a strike that left the Tribesmen three clear after eight minutes (1-1 to 0-1).
Try as they might Galway couldn’t add much to it. Kilkenny corner-forwards Robbie Walsh and Ger Aylward sniped off points, Hickey adding a free to leave just one point in it by the end of the opening quarter (1-3 to 0-4). The close nature remained a constant until the break as the sides struggled to make a decisive break. Galway, who operated with a two-man full-forward line, tried to use the pressure from the half-forward ranks count. Scores from Padraig Mannion and Bernard Burke helped, but with Hickey (2) getting into his rhythm and Paul Murphy on target Kilkenny had the sides level by the 22nd minute mark.
Galway had gone quiet, but could have roared their way back into the game had Healy replicated his earlier feat. Standing over another 25-metre free he went for goal again. Kilkenny had learned their lesson though, one of the six defenders posted on the line doing well to push the sliotar to safety.
Parity remained a constant until half-time. Kevin Kelly and Hickey (free) traded points with Healy and Burke to leave the game in the balance with 30 minutes to play (0-10 to 1-7).
Galway tried to up the tempo after the restart, but were upstaged by the Hickey show. Although Healy stretched his tally to 1-5 with two early frees, five like scores from Hickey pushed the Cats two clear by the three-quarters stage, a lead sub Michael Malone stretched with a mammoth point from half-way (0-16 to 1-10).
There was still plenty of time but Galway’s resistance was broken. With Paul Murphy and Malone holding firm at midfield Kilkenny were able to drop down a gear and see the game out. Hickey contributed two more frees, Murphy a great point despite taking a hit from Daragh Burke - a foul which gave the Galway half-back his marching orders for a second yellow card.
The result was more than pleasing for O’Grady, who praised his players for their overall performance.
“We knew coming up that Galway were going to be a serious threat - the way Galway hurling is going at the minute they are in flying form,” said O’Grady. “A few of our lads stood up to be counted in the second half, which proved to be the difference in the end.”
The Cats were also helped by a strong challenge from Wexford in the Leinster final, as well as solid preparation for the semi-final itself.
Sink or swim
“Sometimes in championship hurling you don’t know what you have until 20 minutes into the game - then it’s sink or swim,” he said. “We had that experience behind us, but we played a lot of challenge games leading up to the semi-final while Richie Mulrooney and his under-21s helped up out over the last few weeks as well.
“Those games all helped,” he added. “They were serious stuff. We played on the Sunday before the game in Nowlan Park and there was hair and everything flying! You can’t beat that type of preparation for an All-Ireland semi-final.”
Fellow selector P.J. Kenny was also happy with the performance, but added there was still plenty to do.
“The job is only half-done,” he said. “Tipperary have a very good side. Like Galway it’s almost a Senior B team they can pick from and we all know the success they’ve had at under-age levels. It’s going to be a major task ahead of us.”
Given that other counties can pick senior players for their intermediate teams some might say the odds against Kilkenny - not Kenny.
“That shows the strength of junior and intermediate club hurling in the county,” he said. “You can go two ways - you can crib about it or do like these lads, which is to get on with it and train hard. A lot of these lads are young hurlers who are eyeing the future. This could be the stepping-stone, a great opportunity to push on.
SCORERS: Kilkenny - Rory Hickey (0-13, frees); Paul Murphy (0-2); Geoff Brennan, Kevin Kelly, Robbie Walsh, Jonjo Farrell, Ger Aylward, Michael Malone (0-1 each). Galway - Niall Healy (1-8, 1-6 frees); Padraig Mannion (0-3); Bernard Burke (0-2).
Kilkenny - R. O’Neill, M. Phelan, A. Walsh, J. Corcoran, B. Kennedy, B. Beckett, P. Phelan, G. Brennan, P. Murphy, N. Walsh, R. Hickey, K. Kelly, R. Walsh, J.J. Farrell, G. Aylward. Subs: L. Harney for P. Phelan, 31 mins; M. Malone for Brennan, 31 mins; C. Kenny for R. Walsh, 52 mins.
Galway - J. Ryan, D. Connolly, E. Fahey, G. O’Halloran, P. Huban, Daithi Burke, Daragh Burke, C. Diviney, D. Fox, G. Lally, P. Mannion, M. Dolphin, B. Burke, S. Maloney, N. Healy. Subs: D. Higgins for Diviney, 25 mins; C. Kavanagh for Maloney, 41 mins; J. Gelston for Lally, 59 mins.
Referee - C. Lyons (Cork).