THE dream of a second consecutive hurling Grand Slam for Kilkenny died an early death in Fraher Field, Dungarvan, on Saturday.
The Cats fell at the first hurdle as a well-drilled, fiercely-focused and extremely talented Cork side racked up a comprehensive and well-deserved win in this All-Ireland intermediate final.
Those who are looking for signs of fallibility in Cat country, however, should take note; like Cork, Kilkenny are one of those counties restricted to picking their intermediate team from their intermediate clubs. Having won the title last year, they had to field an entirely new team for this year’s championship.
There’s a depth of talent in Kilkenny, but not so deep that they can field a second-choice side against a first-choice Cork, certainly not at this level, where Cork were picking up their fifth intermediate title this decade.
Kilkenny made a real game of it for half an hour, but when they turned over at the break trailing by two points, 1-8 to 0-9, having played with the aid of the strong breeze, the signs were there. First blood went to Kilkenny, a free from halfway within a minute of the throw-in by ace marksman Eoin Guinan, but very soon Cork’s superior class began to show. A point from young full-forward Luke O’Farrell (nephew of former senior star Seánie, but playing with Midleton) put them on the board, and after Martin Boran had pointed Kilkenny into the lead again, it was O’Farrell with the first Cork goal, a blast from close range that almost went straight through Kilkenny keeper and captain Tom Brophy, after good setup work by wing-forward Lorcán McLoughlin. Though it was only the 7th minute, and just a two-point lead (1-1 to 0-2), that goal put Cork in the driving seat, and from that point on they were never again threatened. It was tit for tat from there to the break, seven more points apiece, midfielder Leigh Desmond (man-of-the-match display, well supported by Eoin Dillon in the centre of the park) doing most of the scoring for Cork. Kilkenny did shift full-back Paul Murphy to midfield, and he was effective, scoring two fine points in that opening half, but it was finger-in-the-dyke stuff by the Leinster men.
With a strong breeze to come, a dominant defence well anchored by captain Dara McSweeney and Ross Cashman, Billy Murphy, John Carey and Joe Jordan all well on top in their own positions, it all looked set for Cork to sail serenely home.
Again Kilkenny were first on the board after the throw-in, again it was a Guinan free, but as the third quarter evolved the gap gradually began to open. Dominant in the three lines of half-back, midfield and half-forward, where the power of centre-forward Mark O’Sullivan especially was causing problems for Kilkenny, points from Desmond (3), corner-forward Stephen Moylan (2), and one each from McLoughlin and veteran Rory O’Dwyer (winning his fourth intermediate medal), to just one more Guinan free, saw Cork seven points ahead in the 43rd minute, 1-15 to 0-11.
Barring a miracle/catastrophe (depending on which side of the divide your loyalties lay), the title was now headed for Cork, but there would be no such seismic event. Keeper Anthony Nash was called on to make a superb save in the 49th minute from Paul Murphy, but that was the last kick from Kilkenny; a further stream of points – O’Dwyer with a hat-trick from placed balls – extended the Cork lead, before the coup-de-grace arrived.
Two minutes into time-added-on, a long delivery from Desmond was met full on the meat with a powerful two-handed overhead pull by substitute Eamonn Collins, leaving Brophy with no chance.
This Cork side would have been a match for many a senior team on this display, and many of them, in the opinion of manager Johnny Keane, will be heard from again at a higher level: "I’m sure that Denis Walsh shrewd judge that he is, will be taking note of four or five of them, and Cork do need new blood. Lukey Farrell is only 19 but is so mature, Leigh Desmond too while Dara McSweeney is an inspirational captain and Anthony Nash likewise. Mark O’Sullivan is another, the man from Dripsey, a great centre-forward – if he doesn’t win the ball cleanly, he still throws himself around, allows everyone else to feed off him. Didn’t catch a hurley ‘til he was 16, which was 10 years ago, but it just shows what you can achieve if you work hard enough. And there are a few more as well."
Scorers for Cork: L. Desmond 0-10 (0-6 frees); L. O’Farrell 1-2; S. Moylan 0-3; E. Collins 1-0; R. O’Dwyer 0-3 (all frees); J. Carey, E. Dillon, Mark O’Sullivan, L. McLoughlin, A. Mannix, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Kilkenny: E. Guinan 0-8 (all frees); JJ O’Farrell 0-2; P. Murphy 0-2; M. Boran, B. Lannon, N. Kennedy, E. Hickey, 0-1 each.
Subs for Cork: E. Collins (Maurice O’Sullivan 43); A. Mannix (Moylan 54); J. O’Leary (Carey 56); P. O’Leary (Coleman 59).
Subs for Kilkenny: J. Cahill (Boran 22); W. Egan (Brennan 30); E. Hickey (Cottrell 43); M. Murphy (Kavanagh 51); N. Cleere (Lannon 51).
Referee: S. McMahon (Clare).