Kilkenny stand firm under Cork onslaught

John Gardiner rises highest

Kilkenny 1-14 Cork 1-11
By Jim O'Sullivan
THE inescapable conclusion is that Cork left the Guinness All-Ireland hurling title behind them in Croke Park yesterday, in much the same way that Kilkenny did four years ago.

Brian Cody's team sparkled in the first half when the Munster champions were haunted by some terrible finishing and stuttered in the face of an admirable recovery that was given huge impetus by Setanta Ó hAilpín's 53rd minute goal. But Kilkenny had the character and the strength in defence to survive and then triumph through Martin Comerford's goal five minutes from the end of normal time.

A win in which man-of-the-match Noel Hickey at full-back and Martin Comerford (mainly at full-forward) made key contributions, brought Kilkenny level with Cork in the roll of honour with their 28th title. And, other than recording the double-double of League and championship for 2002 and 2003, it saw D.J. Carey lift the Liam McCarthy Cup at the end of a week in which he was shabbily treated by sections of the media over his personal life.

But for some terrific hurling from Kilkenny featuring three points by teenage star Tommy Walsh the first half was largely forgettable as a contest. Cork mounted a strong challenge from the start, which was seriously undermined by wasteful shooting which produced 11 wides by the break (and 18 by the end).

Following a Joe Deane pointed free in the 4th minute, they didn't get another score for 27 minutes and just one from play, in injury time. The irony was that they created three goal chances, in contrast to just one for the champions.

In the initial stages, Cork coped reasonably well with the known threat from the Kilkenny forwards. Notably, however, Martin Comerford was to enjoy a definite advantage over Diarmuid O'Sullivan. Walsh exposed Cork on the left flank with strong and skilful play, which was all the more to his credit after missing so much training after injuring his hip.

Kilkenny also gained a high return from Henry Shefflin (moved to the right wing at the start), while John Hoyne wasn't involved very much in the centre against Ronan Curran.

In Shefflin's case, there were periods when he was beaten by a highly motivated Sean Óg Ó hAilpín, but, on balance he achieved much more. Measured against the overall return from the attack, it was to prove highly significant. His accuracy from free-taking was excellent at a time when Cork's backs were prone to foul under pressure and the unfortunate John Gardiner missed several shots from varying distances.

In general play, Cork achieved a lot up to the point of capitalising on their chances and this weakness was to cost them dearly in the long run. Timmy McCarthy, who had some good spells at left half-forward, might have had a goal in the 19th minute. That was when he made a strong run down the centre, only to be forced to run the ball over the end line after a crucial tackle from Noel Hickey.

A free from Shefflin a minute later gave Kilkenny their eighth score, at a time when Cork had accumulated eight wides.

Then in the 22nd minute Cork missed a great chance of putting the ball in the net. Deane got away from Hickey but opted to pass (after a foot-trip nearly knocked him) to Setanta Ó hAilpín.

His attempt to touch the ball on was foiled by the alert James McGarry.Cork captain Alan Browne was fighting hard in the left corner, but was outplayed by the magnificent Michael Kavanagh. On the other side, while James Ryall was never really comfortable against Ó hAilpín, he still managed to limit the amount of clean possession he got. Midfield was largely inconsequential, but in Cork's case it was noteworthy that John Gardiner was to play much more effectively after moving to right half-back. And, in time, Tom Kenny was to start contributing in his place.

Cork were again out of luck in the 34th minute, when Hickey managed to win a ball while he was on the ground and clear, before a Timmy McCarthy point (the only one from play) left the interval score at 0-9 to 0-3.

Resuming in confident fashion scoring two points to Kilkenny's one in the opening minutes Cork again promised a goal after a Ryall mistake left Ó hAilpín through. But, he blazed wide from a difficult angle. Cork were again frustrated by wasted opportunities, but Diarmuid O'Sullivan thundered into the game at full-back, lifting the team, while Sherlock, too, was dominant, Pat Mulcahy was comfortable against Carey and further up Niall McCarthy began to penetrate at centre-forward, along with Ben O'Connor. Deane, too, saw more of the ball.

However, Ó hAilpín was the one who really caused major problems, earning two frees from which Deane scored, setting him up for a good point from play and then goaling in the 53rd minute to level the scores.

When Niall McCarthy pointed to put give Cork the lead for the first time a minute later there was every prospect of them taking control. The same player was unfortunate to hit another ball off an upright and another wide before Comerford levelled scores in the 58th minute and Shefflin regained the lead from a play a minute later.

The game had now reached its most critical stage and while Kilkenny looked quite nervous, they tightened up in defence.

Shefflin linked up with Comerford for the match winning goal his shot hit the ground and gave Cusack no chance and while there was still time for Cork to recover, the psychological advantage was with Kilkenny. And, they had former captain Andy Comerford in helping to make a few vital catches.

Jerry O'Connor might have had a goal chance in the closing minutes until Delaney made a crucial tackle to dispossess him. After that it was just a question of the champions holding on for the final whistle.

*Pat O'Connor - achieving the rare distinction of a third final appointment did a very good job of refereeing.

Scorers for Kilkenny M. Comerford 1-4; H. Shefflin 0-6 (0-4 frees); T. Walsh 0-3; D. Lyng 0-1.

Cork: J. Deane 0-5 (0-4 frees); S. O hAilpin 1-0; N. McCarthy 0-2; T. McCarthy, B. O'Connor, J. O'Connor and S. McGrath 0-1 each.

KILKENNY: J. McGarry; M. Kavanagh, N. Hickey, J. Ryall; S. Dowling, P. Barry, J.J. Delaney; D. Lyng, P. Mullally; H. Shefflin, J. Hoyne, T. Walsh; D.J. Carey (capt.), M. Comerford, E. Brennan. Subs: C. Phelan for Walsh (45th minute); A. Comerford for Ryall and R. Mullally for P. Mullally (60th); J. Coogan for Brennan (69th).

CORK: D. Og Cusack; W. Sherlock, D. O'Sullivan, P. Mulcahy; T. Kenny, R. Curran, S. Og O hAilpin; J. Gardiner, M. O'Connell; B. O'Connor, N. McCarthy, T. McCarthy; S. O hAilpin, J. Deane, A. Browne (capt.). Subs: J. O'Connor for O'Connell (injured, 38th minute); S. McGrath for B. O'Connor (66th).

*Attendance: 79,383.