YOU couldn’t escape the feeling that it was Kilkenny’s destiny to win their 30th All-Ireland hurling title in Croke Park yesterday in spite of having to replace full-back Noel Hickey after 25 minutes and then team captain Henry Shefflin at half-time with a potentially serious knee injury.
And, it wasn’t difficult to conclude that brave Limerick were doomed to be losers in the final for the fifth time since 1973 after falling 2-3 behind inside the opening 10 minutes. And, at a stage in the second half when they were threatening a recovery, they were out of luck twice in the space of four minutes. First Andrew O’Shaughnessy had a 21 yard free stopped and then after losing his hurley he saw a kicked effort off the ground deflected outside the post.
The irony was that JJ Delaney, who was kept out of last year’s decider by injury, was the defender involved in both ‘blocks,’ the net effect of which was to deny the underdogs the opportunity of at least pushing Brian Cody’s superbly prepared team to the limit. However, either way, the Shannonsiders lost with their honour intact, for the reasons that most commentators had anticipated.
Kilkenny had two points on the board inside three minutes, the second coming from Eoin Larkin who showed terrific ball control and was to pose a major threat. Kilkenny were much more dangerous in early attacks and they struck with devastating effect with goals from Eddie Brennan in the eighth minute and Shefflin a minute later.
Showing all his craft and speed off the mark, Brennan rounded young Seamus Hickey with ease to put the ball in the far corner of the net. And, having twice been beaten before that by Stephen Lucey, Shefflin gained possession from a Cha Fitzpatrick shot and, under strong pressure, reached up to flick the ball past a helpless Brian Murray.
While the statistics will show that Kilkenny only added seven points to that total before the interval and Limerick scored eight in a 20-minute period between the 12th and the 32nd, in teal terms Kilkenny remained in control during that period. The fact is that while Limerick took a lot of encouragement from their early scores, in comparative terms it was a struggle to make openings.
One of the few redeeming features from Limerick’s play was the excellence of Mark Foley at left half-back, and, later on, the major improvement from Ollie Moran and a better return from their midfielders, Donal O’Grady in particular. Brian Geary, too, hit a good spell at centre-back and Lucey defended doggedly all the way to the finish.
Moran hit over two great scores from the right wing in the 18th and 20th minutes which helped to lift the spirits of their huge following, but the only trouble was that the attack as a whole was lacking the power — or the guile — to make better use of possession. And, their cause wasn’t helped by the fact that John Tennyson made an immediate impact when he came on for Hickey — taking over at centre-back, with Brian Hogan reverting to full-back. And he too was very dependable.
Up front, Brennan in the right corner and Eoin Larkin on the left flank, were the players who were causing Limerick most trouble, although Shefflin contributed for a while and Martin Comerford, typically, got through an amount of work. And yet, to give 19-year-old Seamus Hickey his due credit, he stuck rigidly to his task of trying to limit Brennan and probably denied him a second goal in the 24th minute when he got in a brave tackle to divert his shot over the bar.
At the break it was 2-10 to 0-8, and while Shefflin didn’t come back for the second half, the fact is that he wasn’t seriously missed. This was largely because the champions were never anything less than comfortably in control and Richie Power (a definite improvement on an out-of-touch Willie O’Dwyer) ably took care of the few frees that came their way.
Nevertheless, Limerick gave strong hints of a rally when Ollie Moran hit a marvellous goal in the 47th minute. By now, younger brother Niall was impressing as a midfield substitute and it was also noteworthy that Kilkenny were finding it harder to create openings at their end. Conversely, they were given a huge boost by some brilliant play from Cha Fitzpatrick and some commanding play in defence, which saw Tyrrell maintain his high standard and both Tommy Walsh and Michael Kavanagh dominate the right flank.
Ollie Moran’s goal reduced the deficit from nine points to six and in the remaining time they only improved that situation by a point. But, in between they had those O’Shaughnessy goal chances — the failure to score from either being of crucial importance in preventing them from lifting their challenge to a higher level. But, the inescapable fact is that they never once looked like winning.
Diarmuid Kirwan made what I considered about half a dozen bad decisions late in the first half, but his overall handling of the game was very good. His father Gerry, who refereed the 1988 final, would be pleased.
Scorers for Kilkenny: E. Brennan 1-5; H. Shefflin 1-2 (0-1 free); E. Larkin 0-4; R. Power 0-4 (0-3 frees); T. Walsh 0-2; J. Fitzpatrick and A. Fogarty 0-1 each.
Limerick: A. O’Shaughnessy 0-7 (0-6 frees, 0-1’ 65); O. Moran 1-3; D. O’Grady 0-2; S. O’Connor, M. Fitzgerald and N. Moran 0-1.
KILKENNY: P.J. Ryan; M. Kavanagh, N. Hickey, J. Tyrrell; T. Walsh, R. Hogan, J.J. Delaney; D. Lyng, J. Fitzpatrick; W. O’Dwyer, M. Comerford, E. Larkin; E. Brennan, H. Shefflin (capt.), A. Fogarty.
Subs: J. Tennyson for Hickey (inj., 25); R. Power for O'Dwyer (26); M. Fennelly for Shefflin (injured).
LIMERICK: B. Murray; D. Reale (capt.), S. Lucey, S. Hickey; P. Lawlor, B. Geary, M. Foley; D. O’Grady, M. O’Brien; M. Fitzgerald, O. Moran, S. O’Connor; A. O’Shaughnessy, B. Begley, D. Ryan.
Subs: N. Moran for O’Brien (ht); J. O’Brien for O’Connor (44); P. Tobin for Fitzgerald (48); K. Tobin for Ryan (57); M. O’Riordan for Lawlor (inj., 67).
Referee: D. Kirwan (Cork).