THE Cats claw back. Kilkenny reversed the 2004 All-Ireland final result yesterday, beating Cork 1-16 to 1-13 and denying the Leesiders a third consecutive All-Ireland.
A crowd of 82,275 saw a hungry, aggressive team effort from the Leinster champions hustle a deserved victory, silken skill augmented by unglamorous industry.
Prize Persian crossed with combative alley cat, if you like.
Thoughts that Kilkenny might make rookie errors were unfounded. The Cats came out just after 3pm and went towards the Cork training cones at the Canal End, but that was their last real error. All their gambles came off. A supposedly suspect full-back line was as welcoming as a barbed wire blanket, John Tennyson’s shoulder stood up to close inspection, and Aidan Fogarty’s debut was a fairy tale, with the Emeralds man helping himself to 1-3.
The game was slow to take shape: Henry Shefflin and Aidan Fogarty jumped the Cats out to a three-point lead before Niall McCarthy wired into the game and drove his forward colleagues on. It was low-scoring, seven points apiece after 27 minutes, with a lot of the play presaging next February in rucks and mauls.
However, Kilkenny’s hunger was obvious: they hunted in packs up front and made every Cork clearance a three-act drama. When three black and amber jerseys surrounded Sean Óg Ó hAilpín under the Hogan Stand halfway through the first half, it looked like Tyrone v Kerry in 2003 all over again.
No accident, according to Kilkenny wing-back Tommy Walsh: "We really wanted it today. For the last three or four years Cork have been frustrating teams around the country and we were delighted to get stuck in."
Getting stuck in brought them their decisive blow on 28 minutes: a high delivery was contested by Martin Comerford and Diarmuid O’Sullivan near the Cork square, and when it broke to Fogarty he buried a goal. Cork must have sensed the worst as the clock wore down to the half: a Brian Murphy clearance spun off his stick and into Derek Lyng’s pocket. The Kilkenny man sent Kilkenny in for their cup of tea a goal to the good.
The second half continued like the first, fractured and interrupted, which didn’t suit Cork. They never enjoyed a five or ten-minute period of fluency, a run of two or three points to build momentum.
Neither did Kilkenny, but their hurling had more flavour to it. Where Cork passes went awry or were intercepted, Kilkenny were direct and decisive: they were fresh across the ground and nimble on the breaking ball. They also had double the number of Cork wides, but their adventurousness in shooting was rewarded. Maybe the impending gun amnesty just doesn’t apply on Noreside.
For all that, Cork saw daylight with five minutes left. The irrepressible Niall McCarthy drove forward and placed Ben O’Connor for a goal, but it was too late. Two late frees dropped into a humid Kilkenny square but they were repelled.
Invited to pick over the remains of their treble bid, John Allen was magnanimous. "You couldn’t measure the amount of time and preparation that goes into putting an inter-county team on the road that’s going to be a contender.
"We’ve been contenders for the past four years, we’ve put a lot of work, a lot of science and preparation into it. The new system means the best teams end up in the final, and that makes it very difficult for a team to retain its title, and even more difficult to come and retain it twice. We never really pegged back the goal. It came at a good time for them, just before half-time, and while we brought it back a bit they never really lost their three-point lead.
"But we have no complaints. I certainly have no complaints."
He was right. Kilkenny were full value for their win yesterday, with that oldest of black and amber virtues plain for all to see: having players fresh is a challenge in any code, but Kilkenny have a long tradition of keeping their hurlers bright-eyed, as Tommy Walsh confirmed.
"With the training we’ve done this year we’ve been very fresh, coming into every game the most training we’ve had is three weeks, and that stood to us."
For Cork the reverse may be the case: over half the starting 15 played in the 1999 final, which is a long time ago by modern standards. Some of their players may not have the appetite any more, not so much for the big occasions on Broadway like yesterday, but for the drudgery of rehearsal in the mud and rain of January.
For Kilkenny, autumn should be sweet. Tommy Walsh’s endorsement entitled Kilkenny manager Brian Cody to jab back at critics: "There were some cowardly things written at the start of the year – that some of our players were written off, our whole set-up was written off, that I was tired and that players were packing it in."
Tired? Written off? Although Galway and Tipperary contested yesterday’s curtain-raiser, Kilkenny had a thumb on the windpipe of other counties at underage level for much of the last decade.
Noel Hickey and John Tennyson are 25 and 21 years old respectively. ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick and Richie Power aren’t old enough to drink legally in the United States.
Every year brings legends of a new DJ coming through St Kieran’s (we’ll forward a crate of Smithwicks to the first man with the wit to announce the new Henry).
Would you bet against another three-in-a-row countdown, say, in September 2008?