Cats’ smash and grab

There’s a film, Gone In 60 Seconds, about a master car-thief whose forte is to ‘lift’ any car in a minute or less.

It took Kilkenny slightly longer than that in this Allianz Hurling League Division 1A final in Semple Stadium yesterday, but it was just as much a masterclass, in this case on how to lift silverware.

Cork came into this game with a growing reputation, and with Kilkenny hit hard by injury (four front-line forwards — Henry Shefflin, Richie Power, Michael Rice, Aidan Fogarty — along with regular full-back Noel Hickey out of commission) the young Rebels had even been cast as favourites in many quarters. Instead they received a hard lesson from the All-Ireland champions.

You do not go into any game against Kilkenny mentally unprepared; definitely not a national final, but above all, not a national final against a Kilkenny team you’ve beaten just a few weeks earlier and that then has that sizeable chip on its shoulder.

That was the lesson Cork learned yesterday. Those first 11 minutes were a blitzkrieg, the kind of Kilkenny blitz we’ve seen so many times over the last all-conquering decade under Brian Cody. 2-6 to 0-1 Kilkenny led when the dust had settled, a shell-shocked Cork taken totally by surprise, their defences — outer and inner — obliterated.

Cork simply weren’t tuned in, weren’t ready for what hit them, and this was true all over the field. Four of those early points were by the Kilkenny midfielders, Paddy Hogan (who had a superb game) with two long-range frees and one from play, Michael Fennelly with the other. Then the two goals came from inside forwards, captain Eoin Larkin (man-of-the-match) with the first (5th minute), Colin Fennelly with the second (10th minute, after a Larkin pass). All over the field Cork were playing second-fiddle, not remotely near the pace of the game. Even keeper Martin Coleman, replacing the injured Donal Og Cusack but a seasoned player in his own right, was caught. He should have saved the first Kilkenny goal and fluffed a free before making a couple of nervy saves.

This wasn’t the Cork team that have shown so well all through the league. But this was the old Kilkenny. Even with all the new faces, guys like Richie Doyle, Paddy Hogan, Cillian Buckley and Matthew Ruth joining second-year heroes Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly, this was a vintage performance from the Cats. Once that early blitz was over there was still no let-up in intensity.

A third goal in the first-half, this one drilled home from close range by centre-forward TJ Reid after Larkin and Fennelly had both threatened, closed it out. At 3-11 to 0-6 behind at the break there was never going to be any way back for Cork.

Hope for the Rebels, a shaft of light? Well Shane O’Neill and Sean Óg Ó hAilpín had done reasonably well in the first-half, John Gardiner didn’t look out of place in midfield, Patrick Horgan always looked capable in the corner, but most of all, the half-time introduction of teenager Darren Sweetnam marked a turnaround in fortunes. Ten points apiece it was in the second-half, Sweeetnam a powerhouse in midfield landing two scores.

James Coughlan also did well on his introduction, as did Conor O’Sullivan at the other end, but really, just grasping at straws. In that second-half Kilkenny lost midfielder Michael Fennelly to what looked like a serious ankle injury in the 42nd minute, lost his partner Paddy Hogan to a knee injury 20 minutes later, had lost full-back JJ Delaney at half-time, but never lost a beat and never looked even remotely like losing this game.

A 15th league title for them then, to go second alone behind Tipperary (19 titles), their sixth title under Brian Cody. For us all — for Cork, who challenged them, for those of us who doubted their strength in depth — it was yet another lesson, another masterclass in a long litany.

Scorers for Kilkenny: C Fennelly 1-4; E Larkin 1-4 (3f); TJ Reid 1-2; M Ruth 0-3; P Hogan 0-3 (2f); C Buckley, M Fennelly, T Walsh, R Hogan, M Bergin, 0-1 each.

Scorers for Cork: P Horgan 0-9 (6f, 1p); D Sweetnam 0-2; W Egan (f), J Gardiner, N McCarthy, C Naughton, J Coughlan, 0-1 each.

Subs for Kilkenny: K Joyce (Delaney inj. 35); J Mulhall (M Fennelly inj. 42); M Bergin (P Hogan inj. 62).

Subs for Cork: D Sweetnam (McLoughlin 35); C O’Sullivan (McDonnell 35); C Naughton (O’Sullivan 46); J Coughlan (McCarthy 50).

Referee: J McGrath (Westmeath).