Cody smiling as Cats finish with a flourish

Kilkenny 0-20 Cork 2-12
Fine margins, that’s been the story in the top division all through this League.

And so it proved again in this final-round game in frozen (albeit sunny) Nowlan Park yesterday.

Two points, that’s all that separated the teams at the end of an exhilarating game, two points that Cork could easily have prevented at one end had the defence been just that little bit smarter after Luke O’Farrell had blasted home their first goal on 47 minutes — two points that could easily have been scored at the other end but for some outstanding shot-stopping by new Kilkenny keeper Eoin Murphy.

Two points is also all that separates the teams on the final league table and yet, exemplifying just how daft is the current structure, Kilkenny now happily head into a league semi-final in three weeks, against Galway, while Cork face the dreaded relegation final, against equally unlucky Clare.

It all leaves even the demanding Kilkenny manager Brian Cody feeling quite pleased with his side, especially given the number of high-profile players missing at various stages during the league. “We lost our first two games, though not by much. We were decent in those two games, up to a point. When our backs were to the wall in the final three games, and we had to come out and win against three teams that were going very, very well, the response was good and we’ve achieved that. Now we have three weeks to a League semi-final, which we weren’t looking too optimistic about a few weeks ago.”

He has every reason to feel satisfied, does Brian. Defender Paul Murphy and ace attackers Henry Shefflin and TJ Reid have yet to come back, Michael Rice will have the next few weeks to get rid of whatever rustiness remains from his long injury break, yet — as Cody noted — Kilkenny were still strong enough to forge those three wins on the trot, against Waterford, Clare and now, Cork.

Yesterday’s win was the most impressive of the lot. Cork came to Nowlan Park with real fire and purpose, were 0-7 to 0-3 ahead after 24 minutes and it should have been more. Corner-forward Patrick Horgan was in on Eoin Murphy within 20 seconds of the start, took the right option, but his bullet was superbly saved by Murphy who then denied Luke O’Farrell on the rebound.

Again in the 30th minute Murphy denied O’Farrell and really, Cork should have been ahead at the break, well ahead even, though in fairness Cork keeper Anthony Nash was also in action, denied Richie Hogan from a well-struck penalty. Instead, and with Kilkenny scoring the last four points of the half, the sides went in level at 0-7 apiece.

Where the first-half had been a chess-match, both defences doing superbly in end-to-end action, the second saw the game begin to open up. Cork finally got the goal they had threatened (47m) and fittingly, it was O’Farrell with the finish, capitalising on superb setup work by Paudie O’Sullivan and Stephen Moylan.

That score put the visitors 1-10 to 0-11 in front and when O’Farrell again split the defence open a few minutes later for a fine point, the signs were good for Cork.

This was when Kilkenny really dug deep, however, this was when the backs-to-the-wall spirit spoken of by Cody really showed. First, sub Richie Power robbed Cork wing-back Stephen White who delayed his swing by a fatal fraction, and pointed; then the flying Colin Fennelly blocked down Killian Murphy (fine debut) and pounced for another against-the-head score, and Kilkenny were back in control. Over the next 20 minutes was when the game was won and lost, Kilkenny outscoring Cork six points to one, Richie Hogan (again outstanding), Fennelly and Power all to the fore.

Cork did get a second goal, again a score of beauty, Patrick Horgan laying off an inch-perfect pass to the magnificent Conor Lehane, who gave Murphy no chance. It brought them within a point again, into injury-time, next possession vital, but not for the first time in a brilliant career it was Kilkenny midfielder Michael Fennelly winning the dirty ball and scoring.

Worthy winners, Kilkenny, but Cork selector Seanie McGrath was looking on the bright side, unconcerned with the possibility of relegation. “We’re not looking at 2014, we’re looking at 2013 and will look for another encouraging performance again against Clare. Obviously we’d prefer not to be relegated, that goes without saying, but there have been enough encouraging signs from week to week this year so that even if we do end up going down, it’s still been positive.

“Our target was to find players and find out about players; we found out loads about our players again today, when they were up against it they really responded.”

Scorers for Kilkenny: E Larkin 0-6 (5f 0-1 65); C Fennelly 0-4; R Hogan 0-4; R Power 0-3 (1pen); T Walsh, L Ryan, M Fennelly, 0-1 each.

Scorers for Cork: C Lehane 1-3; L Farrell 1-1; P Horgan 0-3 (3f); P O’Sullivan 0-2; S Moylan 0-2; D Kearney 0-1.

Kilkenny subs: R Power (Aylward 27).

Cork subs: M Cussen (McCarthy 53); C Spillane (Kearney 65).

Referee: B Gavin (Offaly).

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