It was far from championship fare in Limerick, but Kilkenny deservedly reached another National Hurling League final, again frustrating Galway, writes Nickey Brennan.
The Westerners played well for much of the game, but not for the first time their attack was to prove its Achilles heel. When Kilkenny opened against the breeze it was a case of keeping the opposition scores to a minimum.
Galway’s first half dominance stemmed from an impressive half back line, and it must have been frustrating for this trio to see many good chances wasted by their attack. Kilkenny had a goal scoring opportunity in the 15th minute when a blistering shot from Walter Walsh cannoned off the post and back into play.
Six minutes later a hand-pass by John Power found T.J. Reid and it took a brave block by the Galway full-back Ronan Burke to prevent a goal. Kilkenny also had a let off when Conor Cooney passed to Joe Canning, and it took a great save from Eoin Murphy to prevent a flick from the Portumna player ending up in the net.
Throughout the first half Galway dominated in central areas and it took some superb defending from Brian Kennedy, Paraic Walsh and Cillian Buckley to keep Kilkenny in touch.
Galway’s tactics of running at the Kilkenny defence was effective in this half. However, as the game ebbed towards the interval one felt that the Westerners might rue those missed chances.
Galway had a let-off just on half time when Colin Fennelly shot to the net but was penalised for fouling Ronan Burke. It was a marginal call by the referee.
Galway’s five point interval lead looked precarious, given the strength of the breeze. Kilkenny was slow to emerge for the second half and we can assume that some harsh words were being spoken. In truth, they were necessary.
Whatever was said clearly had the desired effect. By the tenth minute the sides were level at 0-11 each and Galway had not come close to scoring.
Kilkenny was now showing more urgency and they upped the tempo significantly. The Cats dominance stemmed from a brilliant half-back line. Cillian Buckley consistently won possession. Brian Hogan was totally on top in the middle. Padraig Walsh was everywhere clearing ball.
Kilkenny had let off in the 15th minute when David Burke should have batted the ball to the net. It was a bad miss, and to compound matters, when the ball was cleared it was picked up by Colin Fennelly, who pointed.
Although Kilkenny was now on top the outcome of the game was far from certain. The pendulum swung heavily towards Kilkenny when John Power a grabbed Eoin Murphy’s long-distance free to score a fine goal. Power had been threatening a big score and was probably getting a little frustrated. The goal was just reward for his patience.
Like Galway in the first half, Kilkenny was guilty of some errant shooting afterwards. The Kilkenny defence can take a lot of credit for the victory. Holding Galway to just four points in the second half was ultimately the reason why the Cats got to the final.
Despite being under severe pressure at times the Galway defence can be well pleased with how it coped. The winners did not help their cause by playing far out from goal in the final quarter with Mark Kelly and Henry Shefflin regularly isolated.
Shefflin had a terrific game, and showed once again his value to the team. His reading of situations and his astute positioning saw him score priceless points.
The progress being made by the younger players is hugely encouraging. Brian Kennedy and Padraig Walsh have made huge strides and offer the mentors real options. Cillian Buckley looks very comfortable at wing back while there was much to admire also from the performances of J.J. Delaney and Brian Hogan.
Tipperary looked sharp against Clare. The game’s greatest rivals will put championship thoughts aside for 70 minutes in Thurles. It promises to be another great game.