SCORERS: Kilkenny - John Power (2-1, 1-0 pen); Ger Aylward (1-3); Kevin Kelly (0-6, 0-4 frees); Ollie Walsh (1-0); Padraig Walsh, Cillian Buckley, Walter Walsh (0-2 each). Galway - Niall Burke (0-8, 0-5 frees); Davy Glennon (1-1); Joseph Cooney (1-0); Tadgh Haran (0-3, 0-2 frees); Jonathan Glynn (0-2); Richie Commins (0-1).
IF THIS WAS just the starter, then the main course will have to be something special to top it!
Dining on a first half blitz the Kilkenny under-21 hurlers served up a top class performance as they devoured Galway and stormed into the All-Ireland final.
Three goals inside 11 minutes paved the way to the September 15 decider with Clare and whetted the appetite for the senior clash between the Cats and the Tribesmen in less than a fortnight’s time.
Trailing by three points after 12 minutes (it could have been more but for Dylan Walsh’s excellent close range save to deny Richie Commins a fifth minute goal) Ollie Walsh lit Kilkenny’s touchpaper when he surged through from the right flank and slipped a low shot past Galway netminder Fergal Flannery.
That was the signal for Kilkenny to kick things up a notch - and how. Walsh showed great vision to pick out Padraig Walsh for a follow-up point, closely followed by a Kevin Kelly free. The green flag was flying again on 18 minutes when John Power raced on to Richie Doyle’s long clearance. He controlled the sliotar on his hurley, bouncing it up before drilling it to the far left corner of the net.
Hungry for more goals, the ravenous Cats added another five minutes later. Set up by fine work from Padraig and Walter Walsh, Ger Aylward skipped inside full-back Daithi Burke and ruthlessly cracked an unstoppable shot into the top right corner of Flannery’s goal.
The Cats clearly delivered on some last-minute advice from their manager Richie Mulrooney.
Still in game
“It’s something we always say to the lads, just before we break for Amhran na bhFiann, is to make sure that we’re still in the game at half-time,” he said.
“That gets them to focus on the 30 minutes that are ahead, then we reassess where we are at half-time.”
Kilkenny did all that and more, bouncing back from a sticky start to take control of the game. With Niall Burke and Jonathan Glynn pulling the strings in the half-forward line Galway were 0-6 to 0-3 in front after the early stages, but that three-goal haul had the Cats purring by the 23rd minute (3-6 to 0-8).
Kilkenny were full value for those goals, sparkling whenever they moved into attack mode. They combined speedy direct hurling with short snappy passing, changing their tactics to keep Galway guessing. Sometimes they played the long ball into the corners, other times they fired the sliotar across field; every time they picked out the free man moving in space to threaten.
Padraig Walsh, who flourished when he roamed between the two forward lines, kept the run going when he picked off a point. He made another soon after, spotting Ger Aylward in plenty of room out on the right.
It wasn’t just in attack that Kilkenny were on top, as their defence began to dig their heels in. Joe Lyng highlighted that with a booming 26th minute clearance, the sliotar finding its way to Kevin Kelly via Walter Walsh’s accurate pass from the corner.
Galway did regain some of their early composure before the break. Crucially it also led to some scores, three frees in succession from Niall Burke (2) and Tadgh Haran cutting the gap from 10 to seven points by half-time (3-9 to 0-11).
Galway needed a big start to the second half. They had to hit top gear, but seemed to find reverse instead when corner-back Brian Flaherty hauled down Aylward inside the square. Standing over the penalty John Power saw his chance and took it, driving a shot high into the roof of the Connacht men’s net.
Chasing a 10-point game again Galway could have been forgiven for folding. Instead their resolve shone through.
Haran and Burke led the charge with points, while Haran was only denied a goal when his 25-metre free on 42 minutes was stopped on the line by the seven-man black and amber wall.
Kilkenny kept their own scoring ticking over thanks to Walter Walsh and Cillian Buckley, but Galway weren’t done for just yet.
With less than a quarter of an hour to go the Tribesmen tried to rescue the game. Davy Glennon gave them the ideal start, gathering a loose ball and soloing through before booting it past Dylan Walsh. Joseph Cooney made it really interesting after that, ending a cutting surge forward with a low shot that found the net via the far post.
The two goals, coupled with a Haran point, left Galway breathing down Kilkenny’s necks, but the comeback door was quickly slammed shut.
A Kevin Kelly free helped relieve some of the pressure and stretch the lead back to four points (4-13 to 2-15). The gap got a little wider with a John Power point while Ger Aylward did more of the same, greeting his score with a pumped fist. One final point, a well-deserved score for the hard-working Walter Walsh, and Kilkenny were on their way to the final.
“When Galway got back to within three points our lads showed real composure to push it on for home again,” said Mulrooney. “I have the height of praise for every member of our panel. I have been working with these lads since minor level and they are progressing towards being Kilkenny senior hurlers - that’s what it’s all about.”
The under-21s will cap a busy period when they contest the last of three All-Ireland finals in busy fortnight for the county.
“It’s a testament of the work that goes on in the county, work that starts with lads of five and six years of age,” he added Mulrooney. “After that someone like me is very lucky to be in place to guide them when their clubs send them into the county set-up. It’s a pleasure to do so.”
Kilkenny - D. Walsh, J. Corcoran, W. Phelan, B. Kennedy, L. Harney, R. Doyle, J. Lyng, G. Brennan, C. Buckley, K. Kelly, J. Power, O. Walsh, W. Walsh, P. Walsh, G. Aylward. Sub: M. Gaffney for P. Walsh, 59 mins.
Galway - F. Flannery, B. Flaherty, Daithi Burke, J. Grealish, J. Coen, Darragh Burke, J. Cooney, P. Brehony, T. Haran, R. Commins, N. Burke, J. Regan, C. Cooney, J. Glynn, D. Glennon. Subs: D. Fox for Brehony, 19 mins; P. Huban for Grealish, 22 mins; P. Killeen for Darragh Burke, 31 mins; S. Moloney for Commins, 45 mins.
Referee - J. Sexton (Cork).