By Kieran Rooney
NOT that anyone really doubted it but the weekend's two big provincial finals provided further evidence of Kilkenny and Kerry's absolute determination to retain their All-Ireland crowns.
Kilkenny came through their Leinster Hurling Championship final clash against a disappointing Galway outfit with flying colors. They produced some vintage hurling comfortably win the Croke Park encounter by 1-19 to 1-12.
In complete contrast, Kerry were stretched to the limit when defeating Limerick by 1-17 to 1-14 in the Munster Football decider at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney. It took three points in the final three minutes for them to overcome a brave and talented Limerick outfit.
Although they are much better known for their hurling exploits and it is now 114 years since their last Munster football title, Limerick went into the final believing they had a real chance of causing an upset. They had, after all, come within a whisker of beating Cork in the previous year's decider.
They also have an astute manager in former Kerry great Mickey Ned O'Sullivan. Everything seemed to be going pretty much to plan as they led 0-10 to 0-5 when playing with the wind in the first half.
But the game changed as half-time approached. Kerry, in big trouble against the magnificent John Galvin midfield, brought on Michael Quirke.
His introduction has the desired effect. At last Kerry had some sort of platform in centrefield and by half-time the deficit had been cut to 0-10 to 0-7.
All of a sudden this was a new ball game. Kerry, now playing with the wind, could do no wrong for the opening 15 minutes of the second half. Declan O'Sullivan picked off three points, Mike McCarthy added another to quickly bring them level.
Inevitably, Colm Cooper was heavily involved. He took a pass from Donnacha Walsh to grab a goal and Kerry soon moved 1-14 to 0-10 ahead.
But Limerick were not finished. The imposing Galvin was the key, scoring a goal and a point as his side rallied to draw level. Suddenly an upset was again on the cards.
Unfortunately for the Limerick support among the 23,864 attendance, however, Kerry had enough time to respond and show just why they are All-Ireland Champions. Cooper, David Moran and Tomas O Se hit three points in the final three minutes.
Even then, Kerry were not home as Galvin burst forward in injury time in search of an equalizing goal. But the breakthrough never came, leaving Kerry to celebrate yet another Munster crown and a direct route to the All-Ireland title.
Still, there were some worrying aspects for manger Jack O'Connor. Tomas O Se, for instance, was fortunate to stay on the field after a series of fouls.
As Paul Galvin found out after the semi-final replay success over Cork, the matter may still be dealt with. Galvin was suspended following video evidence and the concern in the Kerry camp must be that the same thing could happen to O Se.
On the plus side, O'Connor believes that their tough battles against Cork and Limerick will stand to them. Fittingly, he also paid tribute to Limerick, paying particular attention to the exploits of John Galvin, stating: "John is a big athletic lad, he is very hard to handle."
As nice as it was to get such praise, Galvin was bitterly disappointed to be again on a losing side in a Munster final. He said: "We should have been further ahead in the first half with the amount of ball we had.
"When we brought it back level near the end, the momentum was with us and I thought we were going to win. But they showed cool heads, and, crucially, got the next score."
Kerry now move into the All-Ireland quarter-finals, leaving Limerick to lift themselves for a fourth round qualifier in three weeks time.
Cats stroll to title
If only Galway could have shown the same resolve as the Limerick footballers when they faced Kilkenny in the Leinster Hurling decider at Croke Park. Much was expected of this game but, in truth, it was something of a stroll for Kilkenny as they cruised to their 1-19 to 1-12 success.
The performance bought them a sixth successive Leinster title and left people in no doubt that it is going to take a huge effort in order to deprive them of a fifth straight All-Ireland crown. Galway were flattered to be only seven points adrift at the finish.
It had been thought that Joe Canning would surely test the Kilkenny defence but he hardly got a look in. Only Damien Hayes, who scored 1-1, provided Kilkenny with any sort of problem.
By comparison, Kilkenny, who now go straight through to the All-Ireland semi-final, looked the complete package. Only in the first half, when both teams struggled to come to terms with the strong wind, did Galway make a match of it.
Trailing by 1-5 to 1-2 at the break, they were still in the hunt but Kilkenny took complete control in the second half. As usual, Henry Shefflin was highly influential, scoring 1-7, while TJ Reid contributed 0-3.
The only possibly drawback is that they could have scored more. Manager Brian Cody agreed, stating: "We had a decent lead in the third quarter and the opportunities put even more daylight between us. We hit a lot of wides, but, on the positive side, are creating chances."
John McIntyre, the Galway manager, had no excuses. Instead, he looked forward to the quarter-finals on July 25, pointing out: "We are sticking together. We face a massive test of character, but sport is about picking yourself up and going again."
Sligo get past Galway
SLIGO will contest the Connacht Football final against Roscommon after a dramatic 1-14 to 0-16 success over Galway in a semi-final replay at Markievicz Park on Saturday night.
The fact that they have now accounted for both Mayo and Galway must surely put them in with an outstanding chance of securing the Connacht crown, but there is no chance of this Sligo outfit getting ahead of themselves.
They have seen too many twists and turns over the past few weeks to allow that to happen. Having allowed Galway snatch a dramatic late draw the previous weekend, the script was reversed this time around.
Sligo found themselves two points behind with two minutes remaining. But Sligo responded with points from Kenneth Sweeney, Mark Breheny, and Colm McGee to snatch victory in the three minutes of added time.
All the more remarkable because Sweeney and McGee had been named in the starting line-up but replaced before the start. Their introduction as substitutes proved absolutely crucial in those dramatic closing exchanges.
Needless to say, the Sligo fans were estatic at the finish. Man of the Match Breheny explained: "We never panicked, we always knew we had something extra in the tank. There's a special bond within this team."
Had he wished, Galway manager Joe Kernan could have bemoaned Sean Armstrong's decision to take a point late in the game instead of going for goal, but he refused to do so. "He opted for the right option at the time -- it put us two points clear. You have to give credit to Sligo.
"We just have to pick oursleves up for the next day." That will see Galway facing Wexford in the qualifiers next Saturday, while the Connacht final between Sligo and Roscommon is scheduled for July 18.
Lilywhites, Tipp advance
KILDARE and Tipperary moved through their respective football and hurling qualifying matches with ease. Kildare saw of Antrim 1-15 to 0-9 in a replay at Casement Park, with the Tipperary hurlers comfortably getting the better of Wexford 3-24 to 0-19 at Semple Stadium.
On the face of it, Kildare's visit to Casment Park should have been tricky. The two sides, after all, could not be separated following extra-time in Kildare last weekend.
But this was a totally different encounter. Antrim just fell apart in the second half and had no answer to Kildare skipper Johnny Doyle.
Doyle finished with 1-6 and generally proved much too good for the Antrim defense. If there was a disappointing aspect for manager Kieran McGeeney, it could only be that Kildare did not avail of more of their many goal scoring chances.
Their prize is a clash with Leitrim in the next round of the qualifiers next Saturday. The Tipp hurlers had things even easier against Wexford, finishing with an impressive tally of 3-24.
That said, manager Liam Sheedy will be looking for a further improvement when they go into phase two of the qualifiers. Basically, they did what they had to do against Wexford, establishing a lead of 0-15 to 0-7 at the interval, and then adding three goals, two of them coming from Lar Corbett in the second half.
Wexford were flattered, scoring eight points in the final 12 minutes when the match was a long time over as a contest.
[PHOTO BY INPHO]