By Kieran Rooney
PROBABLY the best team ever. That appears to be the generally accepted opinion following Kilkenny's 3-22 to 0-19 demolition of Cork in last Sunday's All-Ireland Hurling semi-final at Croke Park.
In truth, most observers are already absolutely certain that the current Kilkenny line-up is the greatest side to have played the game. The Cats are, after all, well on their way to securing their fifth straight All-Ireland title.
Only the winners of next weekend's second semi-final between Tipperary and Waterford now stand in their way. Maybe one of these outfits can bring an end to Kilkenny's magnificent run but there are not many out there who would be prepared to put a lot of money on it.
The fact is that Kilkenny just seem to get better, even when things seem to go against them. By the time 27 minutes had elapsed in last Sunday's semi-final, they had lost centre-half-back Brian Hogan and centre-forward Henry Shefflin through injury.
The loss of Shefflin in particular, should have provided Cork with a real opportunity. But, by that stage, the game was effectively over with Kilkenny 2-6 to 0-3 ahead.
Although Cork had gone into the game as rank outsiders few expected that they would be blow away in such fashion. Certainly, their manager Denis Walsh anticipated a very different situation.
"It's an awful thing to say, but, yes, the game was over at half-time." admitted Walsh.
"We feel we let everyone down, but let ourselves down , more than anyone.
"What we produced wasn't good enough, but we have to take it on the chin. I would have to give Kilkenny huge credit. They were massive, sensational. I couldn't praise them high enough."
So, can either Waterford or Tipperary stop them in their bid for five in a row? "Truthfully, I don't see it. That said, whoever comes through the second semi-final, I'm sure will realish the challenge."
No doubt Walsh is right, but the fact is that Cork looked forward hugely to taking on Kilkenny and fell flat on their face. Remember also that Kilkenny lost John Tennyson and Michael Rice prior to the game and then saw Hogan and Shefflin injured with the opening half-hour.
The problem for their challengers is that Kilkenny have such strength in depth. The inclusion of former Young Hurler of the Year "Cha" Fitzpatrick at midfield for Rice is surely the perfect example. Fitzpatrick was outstanding, contributing 0-2.
And with the best forward in the game Shefflin gone, it was up to someone else to come up with the goods in terms of a high strike rate. Up stepped Richie Power to contribute 1-8, an effort which earned him the Man of the Match award.
Martin Comerford, the substitute for Shefflin, was also excellent, scoring two points from play. That's it, Kilkenny have such a strong squad.
They may need it with so many top players nursing knocks. Clearly, that's a worry for the September 5 final, particulary in the case of Shefflin's knee injury, but at least they have some time on their side in their bid to people right for the decider.
Not, mind you, that Kilkenny have as much time on their hands as Cork. The only consolation for the Rebels was that they put in a much improved second half effort, picking off some excellent scores.
If only they could have played like that when the game was still a contest. The answer is that Kilkenny simply don't allow you that sort of space. They are intent on making a statement as soon as possible, preferably in the shape of goals.
To be fair, Cork had injury problems of their own, losing a key player in Shane O'Neill before the start. Still, their big support must have been reasonably encouraged when a Ben O'Connor point brought them level at 0-2 each in the 17th minute.
Effectively though that was to be the end of their challenge. Within five minutes, Kilkenny had two goals on the board and, between the 21st and 32nd minutes they hit Cork for 1-7 without reply.
Shefflin, needless to say, played his part before limping off. He put Eddie Brennan in for a superbly taken goal and also contributed two points, one from a free.
Five minutes later Donal Og Cusack in the Cork goal, under pressure from Power, failed to deal with James Ryall's long ball. Aidan Fogarty was on hand to belt the ball into the net, leaving Kilkenny 2-4 to 0-3 ahead.
At this stage, Kilkenny could do no wrong, hitting points from all sorts of angles. So much so, that the game was well in the bag by the time Shefflin was helped off the field in the 27th minute.
By half-time, Kilkenny were 13 points clear (2-12 to 0-5). The combination of Michael Fennelly and Fitzpatrick was dominating midfield, Ryall had fitted well for Hogan, and there was clearly no way back for Cork.
Had the match continued in the same vain, the final score could have been anything. For a time it did, Kilkenny adding four quick points, but eventually Cork came more into the game.
They had withdrawn the towering Aisake O hAilpin at half-time, although it must be said he got no real service in his time on the field. Either way, Cork at last managed to gain some respect, Ben O'Connor finishing with 0-7 and Pat Horgan with 0-6.
Horgan even had the chance of a goal but he saw his penalty deflected over the bar. Kilkenny, having understandably gone off the boil to some extent, required some sort of response to show exactly who was boss.
The got it with a third goal, time from the impressive Power who gathered a high delivery before depatching a fierce shot into the back of the net. It was all hugely impressive, but manager Brian Cody was never a man to get too far ahead of himself, a policy which has served him and Kilkenny very well.
"Decent performance, a very decent performance." he admitted. Fittingly, Cody also paid tribute to his substitutes, stating "If you only have a team of 15 players, you are going nowhere very quickly. You have to have a strong panel."
Something which Cody was not able to give a direct answer to were the chances of Shefflin (knee) and Hogan (shoulder) being okay for the final. "Neither of them would go off easily, so it's a worry alright.
"Things have to be assessed. But they are serious players and we will be doing everything we can to get them fit."
AS if the senior team's humiliation of Cork wasn't enough, Kilkenny supporters were treated to another quality performance from their minor side at Croke Park on Sunday.
They ran out 5-19 to 0-15 winners over Galway in the All-Ireland minor semi-final. Galway had been expected to give them some sort of test but were simply blow away by a Kilkenny outfit determined to make up for last year's final defeat.
Just as the senior team make statements by getting goals, so do the minors. It's all a bit worrying then for those looking for some weaknesses in the Kilkenny set-up.
win on Continent
FOLLOWING Nicholas Roche's excellent performance in the Tour de France, Irish cycling received a further boost when Daniel Martin won the Tour of Poland over the weekend.
The 23-year-old took the lead when he captured Thursday's tough mountain stage and subsequently showed huge determination to finish eight seconds clear of his nearest rival.
Meanwhile, Katie Taylor claimed her third successive European Unio Lightweight boxing title in Hungary on Saturday by trouncing Denicia Eliseeva of Belgaria 16-1 in the final.
She now believes that she can win a third successive AIBA World lightweight crown in Barbados next month.
United attack at Aviva,
Rovers defend in Italy
THE League of Ireland had mixed fortunes last week. On Wednesday an Airtricity League X1 took on Manchester United in a match to match the opening of the new Aviva (Lansdowne Road) Stadium and were demolished 7-1.
On that basis, Shamrock Rovers would appear to have been in for a hiding when they took on Italian giants Juventus away in their second leg Europa Cup qualifying match the following day.
Yet, the Hoops turned in a terrific performance in dreadful conditions in Modena to only go down 1-0 to a 74th minute Del Piero goal. Juventus, having won the first leg 2-0 at Tallaght, went though 3-0 on aggregate.
The difference between Rovers and the Airtricity League X1 was that the Hoops set themselves up to defend. The Airtricity League, by comparision, adopted a much more attacking approach which played right into Manchester United hands.
Manager Damien Richardson explained that it was an exhibition game and they were there to entertain the fans. Certainly, the big Manchester United supporters had few complaints as they overran their Irish opponents with some terrific attacking football, the only disapointment perhaps being the failure of Wayne Rooney to find the net.