Paddy Deegan of Kilkenny and Limerick’s Peter Casey compete for possession in the league semifinal at Pairc Ui Chaoimh. [Inpho/Ken Sutton]

Cats take champs, raise doubts about 5-in-row

Kilkenny 3-17; Limerick 1-15

On the face of it, this looked like a return to the age-old order of Kilkenny dominating matches and Limerick trying to play catch-up. That’s what Saturday’s first semi-final served up from Pairc Ui Chaoimh on Saturday and the big talking point emerging was  - is this the end of the road for the great John Kiely team or is he merely giving his five-in-a-row seekers time to regroup before a hectic provincial series?

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On one hand the Treaty management team will welcome the extra few weeks away from preparing for a League final because it allows players and backroom team time to download before looking for the championship charge they will need to sustain them through the late spring and summer months.

After losing all but one of their important matches to the men in green this past half a dozen years, Kilkenny manager Derek Lyng will happily welcome an extra league match in the final knowing that their route through Leinster will be nowhere near as hectic as it will be for the five Munster counties with serious intent to bring Liam MacCarthy home this July.

Kilkenny’s annihilation of Limerick came after a bad start where they went four points down. However, once they found a pathway through the much vaunted Limerick defense, they used it to get in for three first-half goals. Not only did that put serious doubts on the champions about themselves, but it gave every other county looking in a fresh hope that there is a way to attack the Limerick citadel and come away with major spoils.

At the end of the game as Lyng and Kiely lingered while shaking hands, you wondered if both managers were sensing that a changing of the guard was in the offing? Kilkenny have gone an age without winning Liam - something that reflects a modern fame considering how often Brian Cody brought the trophy to Norseside on an annual visit. His successor no doubt will hope that they can now go on and beat Clare in the final before easing through Leinster. If that happens, then he will favor his chances to go all the way and end the barren nine-year spell since they last won the All Ireland back in 2015.

From a Limerick perspective, it has become obvious that they are feeling the weight of history on their backs - first as they struggled to get past several teams last year in the completion of the four-in-a-row and now as they complete the first circuit on the drive for five.

Will this defeat signal a deterioration in performance from now on or merely allow Kiely to reset the dial and get his players fully enthused to go hammer and tongs at it over the coming months.  Certainly stalwarts such as Aaron Gillane, Damien Byrnes, Declan Hannon and Cian Lynch to name but four key players looked like a pale shadow of their former selves on Leeside last Saturday.

They looked fit and strong but mentally fatigued as was evidenced from Byrnes pucking frees wides which he would normally tap over the black spot with his eyes closed.

Kiely described the performance as the worst over his time in charge and felt that the players had a lot of work to do to be ready for Munster fare next month. Having won their five league matches up to his game, there was no alarm signals that nuts or bolts had come loose but on the evidence of how they surrendered to Kilkenny, it looked like a wheel or two was about to come off and totally derail the hope they could leave a historic footprint by winning five Liams in succession.

Toss in the fact that Kilkenny were down to 14 men for a third of the game before Limerick themselves lost a man and the case of what went wrong is magnified to even bigger proportions.

"Yes, It was very disappointing," admitted Kiely. "We had a very positive first six or seven minutes but we failed to bring the intensity of the game to the level we would be accustomed to doing. We made a lot of very basic errors: dropped balls, missed pick-ups, misplaced and incomplete passes. Just a lack of energy and a lack of cohesion in our performance that we were very disappointed with.

"In the second half there was a bit of a kick in us at the start but it was a very small kick. When the challenge came from Kilkenny we just didn't respond and that’s very disappointing from us.

"It’s a disappointing end to our league campaign. We came here with the intention of winning the game to go on to a league final, that was part of our preparations for the championship, and now we have been unceremoniously kicked out of it by a much better team on the day. There might have been eight points on the scoreboard but it was 16-20 points in reality,” he assessed.

The manager continued: "That performance was at a shockingly low level from our perspective. I would say in the eight years now we are on the road it would be in the top two or three poorest performances of our time. That’s disappointing to say but it’s the reality. We have a lot of work to do in the coming weeks.

"But these boys have always shown a great deal of honesty, a great deal of togetherness and unity within the group, and they’re going to need it in the weeks ahead now if they’re going to challenge each other to prepare for the championship.

"We know it’s going to be very tough and I know these guys will be very disappointed with what happened but in the fullness of the next number of days I’m sure they’ll have honest conversations with themselves and with each other, and will embrace the challenge going forward," he stressed.

One minus could be the absence of Peter Casey who was shown a straight second-half red for swinging the hurl off the ball at Kilkenny captain Paddy Deegan. If their appeal is unsuccessful to have the card overturned, he will definitely miss the opening Munster game against Clare on April 21.

"I'm happy with the performance overall," declared Kilkenny boss Lyng. "It’s positive but we know it was still a good bit off championship pace. Both teams will improve and will need to improve. We’ll take the positives from it and drive on. It's where we wanted to be and we’re finding out about players all the time. We have seen a good number of players throughout the league and today as well. I think we’re after finding a few.

"It’s a competitive squad and we have lads coming back so we’re in a good place. But we know we have to keep our heads down and keep working hard."

He too had to plan with a 14-man team when Eoin Cody got a second yellow after 38 minutes - something that could normally have heralded a Limerick comeback. Instead it was the winners who maintained their fluency of play before Casey’s dismissal gave parity of numbers between the teams to the end.

Gillane’s early goal suggested that even against the wind, this might be an easy day at the office for Limerick but goals from Eoin Cody, Luke Hogan, and the unremarkable TJ Reid threw serious doubts over the Treaty rearguard and gave Kilkenny confidence to run at them at every turn. And but for a series of great saves by Limerick custodian Nickie Quaid, they could have been further out of sight, with Kiely’s admission that the Cats could have won by 16-20 points a clear reflection of that point.

With Kyle Hayes out for the duration due to a court case which has now finished and several first-choice players - seven in all - not starting or finishing the match, Kiely will hope that if he goes back to his tried and trusted, the results will come. Amid  all the gloom was the fact that multi-All-Star Sean Finn was back in county colors for the first time in nearly a year and his presence will add great solidity when allied to the presence of the likes of Dan Morrissey will shore up routes to goal which have become apparent with the leaking of six goals in the last two games.

Among their seven changes, a welcome note was the minutes gained by cruciate-victim Seán Finn in his first appearance for 10 months, although their entire inside line had their hands full throughout.

Thanks to the goals the Cats led by  3-6 to 1-6 at half-time but were then facing the wind. Normally you would say Limerick’s ability to use the third quarter to blow away opponents was set up for another enactment but there was something different about this game. Kilkenny were in no mood to be compliant and Limerick were unable to  shoot straight and were totting up the wides at an alarming rate.

TJ had done most of the damage with 1-8 to his credit and Lyng gave his man of the match a rest at the end as Billy Drennan came on to complete the rout by landing three late points.

Kilkenny: E Murphy; S Murphy, H Lawlor, T Walsh; D Blanchfield, P Deegan, C Buckley (0-1); C Kenny, J Molloy; A Mullen (0-3), J Donnelly, B Ryan (0-1); L Hogan (1-0), TJ Reid (1-8, 0-7f, 0-1 65), E Cody (1-0) Subs: R Reid for Blanchfield (35+1-h-t, blood), R Reid Buckley (h-t), M Keoghan (0-1) for Hogan (45), O Wall for Ryan (52-f-t, blood), D Corcoran for Deegan (57-59, blood), B Drennan (0-3, 0-1f, 0-1 65) for TJ Reid (60), T Clifford for Donnelly (69), K Blanchfield for Kenny (70+1).

Limerick: N Quaid; B Nash, S Finn, A Costello; D Byrnes (0-1f), D Hannon, C O’Neill (0-2); W O’Donoghue, C Lynch; G Hegarty (0-1), A English, T Morrissey (0-2f); D Ó Dálaigh (0-1), A Gillane (1-5, 0-3f), P Casey (0-1) Subs: D Reidy (0-2, 0-1f) for English (h-t), C Boylan for Lynch (55), S Flanagan for Gillane (59), M Quinlan for Hannon (61), A O’Connor for Hegarty (67).

Ref: J Owens (Wexford)