26 May 2022

Kilkenny rugby: One step closer...

Kilkenny hang tough to reach Towns Cup Final

One step closer...

Towns Cup Semi Final, KIlkenny 20-15 Dundalk

Eighty minutes is a long time in sport, 20-years is a long time in life. Following an epic and nail biting 80 minute Towns Cup semi-final battle on Sunday last with Dundalk, Kilkenny came out victorious on a 20-15 score line. They now have the opportunity to bridge the 20-year gap since the Club last won the competition in 2002. Many of the legends of the 2002 team were in Naas, including club great Simon Manuel. 

Following a hard earned, 13-08 quarter final win over near neighbours Carlow, Kilkenny progressed into the semi-final against Dundalk. A familiar foe for Kilkenny, the sides faced each other twice in the league and following close to 170 minutes of rugby were only separated by an aggregate scope of two points. In their first encounter the game was settled by a moment of brilliance by 18-year old Conor Walsh, which gave the Noreseiders a two point victory. 

In the last league meeting, just five weeks ago, Dundalk led by seven points with 82 minutes played. A last gasp try in the corner followed by a sublime Hugh Ciorkery conversion saw Kilkenny snatch a draw. The kick had significant ramifications for Dundalk, as it saw Kilkenny leapfrog them in the league and send the Louth men automatically relegated and enabled Kilkenny to go into a relegation/promotion playoff, a game which Kilkenny subsequently won and retained their Division 1A status for next year. With the twists and turns of the Kilkenny-Dundalk rivalry apparent, it was clear that this Cup Semi-Final was always going to be a score settler and a tense affair. 

For the very first time this season KIlkenny had a full deck of players to pick from. With only 20 squad places available for Towns Cup games the Kilkenny management team had an enviable task of selecting their chosen 20 players. Previous experiences against a larger and more robust Dundalk pack, Kilkenny was always going to opt for a forward oriented squad. This saw David O'Connor name four forward subs, Martin Leahy, Joe Moynihan, Simon O'Hara and Shane O'Riordan with Jack Walsh the lone back replacement. It also saw Andrew Warner, Shane O'Connor, Ciarain Sutton and Lyndon Brannigan all miss out on a place on the squad. Credit must go to all four, as they never allowed their disappointment to affect team reparations. 

The starting XV saw a front row of Conor Dempsey, Ben Devlin and Drew Phelan, Wes Carter and Liam Phelan filled the second row, with David O'Connor, Gary Dunne and Roy Stanley in the back row. In the backline Jake Pratley and team captain Jake McDonald started at halfback, Joe Manuel and Podge Mahon filled the center pairing with the back three completed by Aiden McDonald, Hugh Corkey and Liam Caddy. 

Played in Fournaughts, the home of Naas Rugby Club, the game was played in impeccable conditions. Kilkenny started the game in a whirlwind and early indicators suggested a foregone conclusion of an uncompetitive win for the Noreseides. Wave after wave Kilkenny attacked the Dundalk half of the field. Through excellent ball retention and forceful carrying of David O'Connor Kilkenny made fierce inroads into the scoring zone. A good attacking position from a lineout went begging, but from the clearing kick prop Conor Dempsey received a pass and made ground.  With the width of the pitch to attack snappy passing through the Kilkenny half backs, Podge Mahon broke the line, Mahon and Caddy had some super interplay before the latter made a sublime off-load back inside to Aiden McDonald who did excellently to be in the optimum support position. Making no mistakes McDonald raced from 35m out to cross over the line to give the cast a five point lead with six-minutes played. Surprisingly, Corkery, who has been near perfect from placed kicks this season missed the conversion. 

Across the following 20 minutes of play Kilkenny dominated in all aspects of the game, despite the best efforts of Dundalk's stand our player Tiernan Gonnelly they could not get a foothold into the contest. Though David O'Connor, Conor Dempsey and Joe Manuel, Kilkenny made lots of progress, but some unnecessary box kicking afforded Dundaly easy possession to stage some of their own attacks, albeit they were fruitless in their efforts. 

In the 25th minute an Dudalk infringement gave Kilkenny the opportunity to find touch and a very good attacking position, but unfortunately the lineout didn't go according to plan. The clearing kick failed to clear the line and from the resulting lineout Kilkenny attacked the width of the pitch. A clinical attack was sparked by Joe Manuel who did brilliantly to find a gap. With efficient recycling Kilkenny moved the ball quickly allowing Hugh Corkery to go over in the corner, again, surprisingly Corkery missed the conversion leaving the score 10-00 to the Noresiers. From here Kilkenny regrouped for the restart, a sloppy error afforded Dundalk possession and through Kileknny native, Simon. O'Shea, they looked to build a response and prevent the game getting away from them. O'Shea is a product of Kilkennys youth system and played for many years from Kilkenny, but he recently moved to live in Dundalk, finding the travel commitment too much O'Shea made the tough decision to leave his hometown club to sign for Dundalk. 

Kilkenny were equal to the Dundalk effort and quickly won possession and looked to counter attack. Following some impressive phases Podge Mahon broke down the touchline, with a two man overlap on his left and Liam Caddy on his inside right hand shoulder, Mahon chose to pass back inside to the Caddy, who saw immediately halted, should the outside overlap have been used, Aiden McDonbald would have had an unopposed route to the line. 

From the breakdown Dudalk were adjudged to have illegally encroached onto the ruck  and the referee awarded Kilkenny a penalty. Hugh Corkety took the option to shoot at goal, this time the Bennettsbridge man no mistake, judging the cross wind perfectly he compensated his kick to the left hand post allowing the wind to correct the flight of the ball and sail over for the score, taking the score to 13-00 with 34 minutes played.

Knowing they needed to respond quickly Dundalk upped their approach and intensity. They went back to basics, allowing their physical forwards to make hard yards and that they did so with guile and intent. The truth be told, during this phase of the match they bullied Kilkenny, but to Kilkennys credit they defended gallantly and held the Louth men out. 

In the 40th minute Dundalk were awarded a penalty, their goal kicker, the impressive Ultan Hughes, stepped up. Uncharacteristically for Hughes, he scuffed his kick and it landed into the arms of Liam Caddy who kicked the ball dead to bring the half to a close, or so he thought. The touch judge had communicated to Caddy that time was up, hence Caddy kicked the ball dead over the endline. However the referee called that there was still time on the clock, therefore he called play back for a 5m Dundalk scrum. 

This seemed to confuse everyone in attendance, but the referee makes the final call and not the touch judge. For this scrum Kilkenny introduced the evergreen Joe Moynihan, a seasoned campaigner Moynihan has significant AIL experience with Sunday's Well in Cork, was brought in to add mass to the Kilkenny front row. A number of scrums went down and needed to be reset, but eventually Dundalk got the upperhand and managed to cross the line to get a try, leaving the halftime score 13-05. KIlkenny felt aggrieved, and rightfully so, at the confusion around the timeclock, particularly given that it led to the concession of a score and a try, that in the balance of the previous 35 minutes, Dundalk probably did not deserve. 

The second half resumed and Kilkenny got back to playing a high intensity attacking game. Making tangible inroads into the Dundalk half, the Cat's looked to make a statement and get an early score on the clock, but some sloppy play allowed Dundalk continuously clear their lines. Option to go for box kicks Kilkenny handed possession to the more physical Dunfald side, giving the impressive Hifo Topou opportunity to run at the Kilkenny defence. Gaining in confidence Dundalk went through the gears and in the 52nd minute they scored a try through the impressive Tiernan Gonnelly, leaving the minimum margin between the sides. 

Kilkenny responded and quickly were back in the scoring area, and a series of good attacking sequences saw the impressive Roy Stanley, supported by Liam Phelan and Martin Leahy make some ground. Kilkenny No.8 Gary Dunne appeared to sustain an injury, but from a good position Kilkenny had an excellent attacking position and looked to exploit an overlap. Just as they were ready to pull the trigger, on recommendation of the touch judge, the referee halted play. Following a few moments of consultation between the match officials, Dundalk's winger, Derek Williams was shown a red card for kicking Gary Dunne in ruck. 

This gave Kilkenny a numerical had an immediate impact, from the resulting penalty McDonald went to touch. Ben Devlin's throw was accurate and was gathered by Wes Carter. Kilkenny set a maul and drove Dundalk 25 meters between the maul broke down, Kilkenny recycled, edging closer to the line, with a massive overlap out wide, the Dundalk defence was stretched, Hugh Corkey was in acres of space outwide and Dundalk raced out to cover him. This created gaps in tight and Roy Stanley spotted a gap and crept through to get the try, Corkety made no mistakes with the conversion, taking the score 20-12, importantly creating a two score game.

The final 20 minutes was dominated by Dundalk and for a from the 64th both teams played with 14 as Gary Dunne received a sin binning or an impingement. Dundalk dominance was rewarded in the 73rd minute as the imprevive Murphy again slotted a penalty to make the game 20-15. With the balance of play in Dundalk's favour the Kilkenny supporters began to doubt the side could hold out. Wave after wave they defended everything Dubdalk could throw at them. Just as Dundalk looked to get over the line, Ben Devlin made an impressive turnover to win possession. Kilkenny looked to run the clock down and manage possession, but as soon as they won possession back a Kilkenny player went off their feet on entering the ruck and the referee awarded Dundalk a final opportunity. Opting for a tap and go, Gonnelly appeared to cross the line and looked to have recorded a levelling score, but a combined effort by Jack Walsh and Gary Dunne managed to hold him up and deny him a try, at which point the referee brought the game to a close. 

At the final whistle the celebrations, on and off the pitch were rapturious. Again, for the upteenth time this year Kilkenny showed immense reliance and spirit to stick together through adversity and opposition dominance and claim a famous win. In truth Dudalk dominated the possession stats on a 60-40 metric, but Kilkenny played the better attacking rugby and were highly efficient in capitalising on their scoring opportunities, which is key in cup rugby. 

Kilkenny played some sublime rugby showing serious intent when they got the opportunity. However, attack is only as good as the defence and it was Kilkennys defence that won the contest for them. They soaked up everything that Dundalk could throw at them and as a consequence they won the game. The decision to carry four forwards on the bench was vindicated as it was an attritional game, where the rolling sub played a pivotal role for Kilkenny. There are concerns around Kilkenny discipline, which, no doubt, David O'Connor and Steve Ashmore will look to tighten up on before Easter Sunday's Final against Ashbourne in Cill Dara RFC. 

Note must go to Dundalk who were most gracious in Defeat, but special mention must go to their Captain Tiernan Gonnelly who played superbly and to Simon O'Shea who offered some words of congratulations to his old teammates in the dressing room after the match. For Kilkenny they had strong performances throughout, upfront the entire pack were sublime, Wes Carter showed good leadership throughout, David O'Connor was impressive, parturaly at scrum time, as was Liam Phelan. 

In the backs Kilkenny were a lethal unit from Pratley to replacement Jack Walsh all of the backs were super. On reflection, there can be no doubts that Roy Stanley was Kilkennys standout man, he showed a new dimension to his game and rose above all the others to give a performance of significant merit. For Kilkenny they will begin preparations for the final and work to get any knocks and bruises sorted out and make sure a full squad is available for the final. Kilkenny now have an opportunity to bridge a 20 year gap as they attempt to bring the cup back to Foulkstown for the first time since 2002. Ashbourne, who beat Kilkenny in the 2014 final stand between them and achieving the feat allowing many players including Jake McDonald and Joe Manuel follow in their fathers footsteps to claim a coveted winners medal. 

1- Conor Dempsey. 2-Ben Devlin. 3-Drew Phelan. 4-Liam Phelan. 5-Wes Carter. 6-Gary Dunne. 7-Roy Stanley. 8-David O'Connor. 9-Jake Pratley. 10-Jame McDonald. 11-Aiden McDonald. 12-Joe Manuel. 13-Podge Mahon. 14-Hugh Corkery. 15-Liam Caddy. 16-Joe Moynihan. 17-Martin Leahy. 18-Simon O'Hara. 19-Shane O'Riordan. 20-Jack Walsh 

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