It was one of those days where the goal was to make an All-Ireland final, but it was the manner of Kilkenny’s victory that really impressed.
In what has been a season of many different performances, the Cats showed another side to their game when taking care of Limerick’s challenge.
The mental toughness, not to mention defensive steel, that was on show as the Cats got over their biggest hurdle of the year was something else.
Winning the League and Leinster titles were milestones the team reached with hard-fought and clinical performances respectively. But the two-point win over Limerick that secured another All-Ireland final berth? This drew from other parts of Kilkenny’s experience banks.
The last 15 minutes of the game were nothing short of a battle, as players put in the blocks and took knocks as the race for that final berth went right to the wire.
The drama was heightened by the not-so-small matter of the weather. The rain drummed down on Croke Park and the players, turning the sliotar into a bar of soap, while the wind howled and the thunder rattled.
The harshness of the elements meant that one untimely slip could have proved fatal. Yet, Kilkenny closed out a battle of a game, showing incredible hunger and determination to make September’s final.
It also helped, of course, that the Cats showed an impeccable sense of timing. There were spells when Limerick threatened to run riot, but on two separate occasions Kilkenny struck with rapier-sharp precision to leave the opposition reeling.
Richie Hogan was responsible for the first, plundering a 35th minute goal that turned the game on its head. Trailing by a point (0-10 to 0-9) with time running out, Kilkenny surged forward.
Working a channel along the right, the sliotar was moved through the hands of Hogan and T.J. Reid, before Colin Fennelly was stopped by Richie McCarthy.
For a split-second it seemed as if a free was about to be awarded. Instead, once they were given the advantage, the Cats pounced.
Releasing a looping hand-pass, Fennelly’s delivery was picked up by Hogan, who found enough space to spin out of trouble - but not before shipping a hefty challenge from Wayne McNamara - and crash a low shot inside Nickie Quaid’s right-hand post.
The goal was just one element of what Brian Cody hailed as a ‘superb’ team performance. Time and again Kilkenny were tested by Limerick, but they never wilted.
Their resolve would be tested again, this time in the second half. Once more Limerick drove at their opponents with as much ferocity as the rain that battered the players, overturning a three-point deficit with powerful hurling.
In a 10-minute spell the Munster men were seriously impressive. Dominating every challenge, they combined a water-tight defence with a hungry offensive game that attacked in packs.
By the 54th minute they had moved into a two-point lead (0-16 to 1-11) and seemed to have turned the corner. But then, Kilkenny hit back and turned the lights out.
Awarded a free in what seemed to be harmless territory on half-way, the Cats sensed an opportunity to take control once more.
Driving in a high ball, Richie Hogan’s delivery caught Limerick napping. Corner-back Tom Condon was outnumbered, sandwiched between sub Richie Power and Eoin Larkin. Power was first to the ball, his slight touch deflecting the sliotar beyond Nickie Quaid. It was a hammer blow, one from which Limerick would never recover.
Much had been made of how Limerick would need to fire on all cylinders if they were to get the better of Kilkenny. They got the start they wanted, taking the game to their opponents with such gusto that it seemed to startle the Cats. Two scoring attempts were spurned by the Leinster champions before Limerick got the ball rolling, Declan Hannon and Donal O’Grady giving their large band of supporters something to cheer about.
The noise from the Limerick fans was something that had to be experienced. Roaring their side on, it seemed as if the ingredients for an upset were there.
However, Kilkenny’s experienced heads were not about to drop. Colin Fennelly, who proved to be a vital cog in the machine all day, hit their opening point before T.J. Reid silenced the green and white swarm on Hill 16 with a coolly-taken free.
Limerick’s bustling half-forward line picked up the pace again, David Breen adding his name to the scoresheet. Graeme Mulcahy did likewise, his point coming after Richie McCarthy burst out of defence and booted the sliotar clear.
The momentum may have been with Limerick, but Kilkenny didn’t panic. A growing wides tally (they had five in the first quarter) might have alarmed some, but not the Cats. Another Colin Fennelly point was made thanks to some strong fielding from Cillian Buckley, while Padraig Walsh made light of the bad weather, wriggling away from his man to arrow the sliotar over the bar.
Parity didn’t survive for long, as the Treaty men launched another wave of attacks. By the 24th minute they had opened a three-point lead (0-8 to 0-5), Shane Dowling (2) and Hannon leading the charge. It was real backs to the wall stuff for Kilkenny at times, but still they hung on, Michael Fennelly fighting hard to make shooting room for a point.
Kilkenny nerves were tested again when, following a clever O’Grady cross, Shane Dowling went for goal. David Herity did well to block the 26th minute effort, but there was another flash of panic as Dowling blocked the ensuing clearance - the sliotar dropped wide, much to the Cats’ relief.
The gap was still three points as the half ticked towards the last five minutes, but there was a notable change in Kilkenny’s tempo.
Having weathered the Limerick storm, now it was their turn to shine. While Dowling did hit two points, the latter a stylish one-handed effort, Kilkenny responded with three of their own. Following a Reid free Michael Fennelly pounced on a half-cleared Limerick ball and turned it over the bar, while Padraig Walsh profited after Richie Hogan plucked the ball from a cluster of players and palmed it off to his colleague.
Then, having soaked up everything Limerick had thrown at them, the Cats struck for that Hogan goal.
That was a body-blow for Limerick, who did have a chance to quickly cancel it out when Herity batted out Mulcahy’s injury-time point attempt from under his crossbar. The in-rushing Breen appealed for the goal, but it wasn’t given. That compounded the hurt for Limerick as, having dominated long spells of the game, they went in two down at the interval (1-9 to 0-10).
The second half didn’t start too well for the Munster men. First they saw Kilkenny stretch their lead to three points (Colin Fennelly), before Herity denied Paul Browne a goal when he swatted the midfielder’s shot out for a 65. The netminder had a busy time of it in the early stages of the second half, coming to his side’s rescue once again when he stopped David Breen’s shot.
Kilkenny nerves did flutter when a booming Gavin O’Mahony free spilled loose from Herity’s grasp as he tried to find space to make a clearance. Breen and sub Sean Tobin raced in to try and force the sliotar to the net, the latter getting a flick on the ball, but black and amber nerves survived as the ball spun wide.
The pressure was beginning to tell as, in the driving rain, Limerick poured forward. Backboned by a strong defence they surged on and rattled off five points in a 10-minute spell that took them two clear (0-16 to 1-11) of the Cats.
That run was Limerick’s way of throwing down the gauntlet, as if to challenge Kilkenny to match their efforts. Henry Shefflin and Richie Power entered the fray, the latter picking the perfect time to get his first championship score (and break Limerick hearts) with that flicked 55th minute goal.
Now back in front, there was no way Kilkenny would let that lead slip. The closing 15 minutes saw a defensive display that bordered on Herculean, as the Cats repelled everything Limerick could throw at them.
There could have been a bigger margin - Donal O’Grady was fortunate not to see red when tripping up Power before he could shoot for goal late on. A Reid free meant it was still a two-point game with five to play, but the lead was guarded as if it was made of gold by Kilkenny, who strained every sinew until the final whistle sounded.
SCORERS: Kilkenny - T.J. Reid (0-5, frees); Colin Fennelly (0-4); Richie Hogan, Richie Power (1-0 each); Padraig Walsh, Michael Fennelly (0-2 each). Limerick - Shane Dowling (0-7, 0-4 frees, 0-1 65); Declan Hannon (0-5); Graeme Mulcahy (0-2); David Breen, Donal O’Grady, Sean Tobin (0-1 each).
Kilkenny - David Herity, Paul Murphy, J.J. Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Joey Holden, Brian Hogan, Cillian Buckley, Richie Hogan, Colin Fogarty, Padraig Walsh, Michael Fennelly, T.J. Reid, Colin Fennelly, Mark Kelly, Eoin Larkin. Subs: Henry Shefflin for Kelly, 51 mins; Richie Power for Walsh, 53 mins.
Limerick - Nickie Quaid, Tom Condon, Richie McCarthy, Seamus Hickey, Paudie O’Brien, Wayne McNamara, Gavin O’Mahony, James Ryan, Paul Browne, David Breen, Donal O’Grady, Declan Hannon, Shane Dowling, Kevin Downes, Graeme Mulcahy. Subs: Sean Tobin for Downes, 40 mins; Thomas Ryan for Breen, 62 mins; Niall Moran for O’Grady, 67 mins.
Referee - James Owens (Westmeath).