Kilkenny 2-26; Clare 0-20
First it was Waterford who put their hands up as the likely lads to win Liam MaCarthy should Limerick have a bad day; then it was Clare who showed up best as alternative winners – but now we know, Kilkenny are back in an All-Ireland final and are improving so rapidly that only a fool would dismiss their credentials to win reclaim MacCarthy for the first time in seven years.
In Croke Park on Saturday evening, they left the block like a sprinter, they continued their journey like strong middle distance runners and they came up the final strait like a marathon runner who still had plenty left in the tank.
Only recently derided as out of date, Manager Brian Cody has reinvented himself and his squad so that they now have modern-day nous such as puck-out strategies, midfield interchange from speedy half-backs and as always a burst of scoring power that only Kilkenny can replicate year after year.
Poor Clare, they were like boys in a man’s game – totally outclassed in virtually every position and lucky to be only a dozen points in arrears at the final blast of a whistle from Fergal Horgan.
And so Cody will lead his county to a 17th All-Ireland final on Sunday week full of confidence that they know how to lower the green and white colors, just like they did in the All Ireland semi-final three seasons ago.
He will be glad that the Ballyhale boys are now back and fully embedded in the black and amber cause as veteran great TJ Reid with a contribution of 0-10, 7fs, the galloping midfielder Adrian Mullen with 0-5 to his credit and the elusive Eoin Cody with 0-03 accounted for 0-18 of his sides 2-26.
On top of that the manager now knows he has speed and character in his defence – I mean who else has destroyed Tony Kelly, with only four pointed frees to show for his efforts, as well as Mikey Butler did on Saturday?
Kilkenny came with a ferocious intent that had them 1-17 to 0-6 ahead at half-time, with the disappointing Martin Keoghan getting the only goal of the half.
It didn’t help that Clare were wildly inaccurate on the day, 11 first-half wides and 24 in all which if they could have managed only half of those wayward shots, they would have ended up level on the scoreline.
But so much for fanciful talk not based on fact. The reality is that Kilkenny are made of strong mettle and when Cian Kenny added a brilliantly worked second half goal from the vision of sub Walter Walsh, it was game, set and match without a tennis racket in sight.
Clare plugged on with a certain pride as Shane O’Donnell (0-4) and David Fitzgerald (0-3) kept going, but it was only to add respectability to the scoreline rather than seriously come back at their opponents.
Now the final question for the men from the Marble City is … can they do it again against an even stronger team who will be fired for a three-in-a-row?
Ref: F Horgan (Tipperary).
Galway push Limerick all the way
Limerick 0-27; Galway 1-21
With Kilkenny blitzing Clare and Limerick struggling to get past Galway, hands up now by those who think the All Ireland hurling series will be a cakewalk back to Shannonside this season?
Over the next 10 days or so, it will be interesting to see who the pundits line up as favourites in this battle of the giants as last weekend’s semi-finals changed the temperature and complexion of the race for Liam MacCarthy.
There is no one better than maximizing production from a squad than Kilkenny Manager Brian Cody. And you could say he did that expertly and almost perfectly, particularly in the first-half, against Brian Lohan’s outclassed side.
If ever there has been a younger version of Cody on the block, Limerick’s John Kiely provides that photofit. He had to trust his squad rather than his team to get his county out of a real dogfight with Galway and in fairness, the like of David Reidy with three points in the last 10 minutes when introduced, which saw the holder’s home.
One massive plus for Kiely, and indeed for teams down the ages, is that no prizes are given out for a magnificent semi-final display. Better to stumble through than show your hand, the old sages say when it comes to winning through to the final.
The Limerick supremo now has a whip in his hand for the next week and a half as the likes of the Morrisseys, Gearóid Hegarty, Graham Mulcahy, Will O’Donoghue, Seamus Flanagan and even Kyle Hayes among others now know they are under pressure to start against the Cats on Sunday week.
That gives him the chance to sharpen up his squad by that vital 10-20 per cent he will need to win this big clash. Cody has the knack of getting his player pitch perfect every time he sends them out but even he will find it impossible to insulate the squad from the praise and back-slapping they will get for producing such a performance to send Clare packing.
Also Limerick are now touching on immortality dating back to Mackey times and will know if they had not lost to Kilkenny in the 2019 semi-final they would possibly be going for five-in-a-row. In fact they will be seeking to complete a hat-trick of successive titles and may look back on the Galway scare as a blessing in disguise.
Limerick started well and were 0-5 to 0-1 up before Galway found a rhythm which had them level near the end of the half. However when Limerick struck four times to move 0-16 to 0-12 ahead at the interval, there was a feeling that they would kick on in the third quarter.
So much for conjecture. Full-forward Brian Concannon fooled a very canny defence by coming from in to out to brilliantly catch a long delivery in the 38th-minute before despatching expertly to the net. It was obvious that with that show of defiance that the game would become a test of character as they managed to be level no less than 10 times as they fought for every ball in the long sprint down to the wire.
Reidy would show up best of all as his point in injury time, his third in a short cameo, finally broke Henry Shefflin side’s defiance as a near full Croke Park rose in unison to salute two fantastic teams.
If Limerick were lucky to have Reidy at the end, then they should be on their knees thanking Aaron Gillane for his brilliance throughout the game. Scoring eight points in all, six from play, was spectacular on a day when the chances that came to him were few and far between.
Seamus Flanagan began in great form but descended into anonymity and was ultimately withdrawn as Kiely sought fresh legs to chase down the Galway defenders from mopping up ball.
Galway found early on that they more cautious they were, the less success came their way. So when they pushed Cathal Mannion further forward upon the resumption, he got immediate result with a point, but more importantly the team found a new momentum, which was helped by the arrival of the game’s only goal from David Burke’s long delivery into Concannon.
Six minutes later Galway went ahead for only the second time in the game when Jack Grealish fed Joseph Cooney and he did the rest.
Suddenly you wonder if Limerick had feet of clay on the day. Uncharacteristic wides from the likes of Diarmaid Byrnes with even Gillane shooting a pair the wrong side of the post, one from a placed ball and one from play, made you wonder if they were hitting the end wall.
As tensions rose, the sidelines got involved with both Shefflin and Limerick coach Paul Kinnerk seeing yellow for contesting the official decisions.
It was nip and tuck as first Cathal Mannion levelled before Tom Morrissey did one of the few good things to score an amazing point under pressure and give Limerick the lead again with their first score since changing ends. Conor Whelan, who was well policed all day, broke free for level from an acute angle.
It was now or never time for Kiely who brought on the recovering great Cian Lynch as well as Peter Casey in a double substitution. Truth is neither man made an impression but then he had other trump cards in his hand as well. Galway appeared to have a new grit about them that was missing in the Kilkenny game in the Leinster Final and when they went two points up, a shock was on the cards.
Byrnes steadied the ship with a long range free but Tom Monaghan replied before Gillane eluded a tight grip to fire a trademark score yet again.
Reidy’s introduction was the missing piece on the day for no sooner had he crossed the white line than he fired over a great score. Fintan Burke got the rub of the green of a Hawk-Eye examination as the prospect of extra time loomed large.
Reidy popped over a score either side of the 70th minute mark and as crucially Galway’s radar stopped working as they hit three wides in quick succession. When Byrnes added another to make it a three-point game, Galway had to look for a late, late goal for salvation but Hayes, caught the delivery into the square to lift the siege.
Speaking after the game, Kiely saw the benefits of a strong squad as he evaluated the game. “It was a tough battle. We got off to a good start - probably too good a start if you like, we were in flow very early, but that flow got disrupted obviously.
“Galway got back into the game, settled, started getting some fluency going themselves, and it was nip and tuck. A really tight game, and ultimately it came down to that final quarter, and we won the final quarter. That was the vital part."
“Every day we go out the kitchen sink is fired at us and whatever is left over is fired at us as well. We have had to stand up and take whatever has been fired at us all season long and that’s just the way it is and I don’t see it going to change.
“But I know that every day our boys have stood up and withstood everything that was fired at them. They showed great resilience, determination, composure, calmness and an ability to see out the game so I’m worried about nothing.
“I don’t think we worked quite hard enough today. When we look back on it during the week our work rate will be just down a notch or two, and it’s something we’ll be disappointed with. We turned over too many balls in the tackle, and that’s our fault. The tackle is the opposition’s responsibility but holding onto the ball is ours when we have it, and we coughed up too many balls in the tackle.
“We were up against fantastic opposition, real, top-quality opposition. We have to respect that. If that challenge wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be saying that we were disappointed with elements of our game,” he emphasised.
He went on tellingly: “If a fella is disappointed after his performance today, he wants the battle in training next Friday night, next Sunday, next Tuesday week. He wants that because he wants to fight for his own place and he wants to fight to get himself to the level where he knows he's prepared for the game that's coming.
“He [Reidy] is exceptionally consistent in what he does coming off the bench for us, it’s something we value highly in the group. All the bench - he got three points I know but there was an assist there from Cian, Peter came on, got some vital possessions, Conor Boylan came on, broke a tackle, got a vital possession.
“They have a chance now. Those vital pieces that they gave us today in terms of a couple of possessions, a couple of assists, tackles, all of those bits and pieces were valuable to us in that period of time they were on the field.
"Whoever finishes it doesn’t matter, it’s who does the work before that, but they gave us the energy. I think we were the team with the energy in the last eight to ten minutes.”
Minor Hurling Final
heartbreak for Offaly
Tipperary 1-17; Offaly 1-16
Half of Offaly were in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny on Sunday afternoon and their hearts were broken when Paddy McCormack doubled on a short free by substitute Paddy Phelan in the fourth minute of injury time to claim a shock win.
Down to 14 men and down six points, the winners slotted over four points before the dramatic denouement. You have to credit the Premier boys for never giving up. It was a Seamus Darby finish, but this time it went against the men in the tricolour.