Fennelly goals keep cool Cats in driving seat

Kilkenny 2-17 Tipperary 0-20
Two first-half goals were enough, and only just enough, to see Kilkenny past the stubborn challenge of visitors Tipperary in yesterday’s Allianz Hurling League final at Nowlan Park yesterday, a crowd of 21,447 getting a good championship taster in a game that went down to the wire.

Defending champions, it marks Kilkenny’s seventh title since 2002, albeit on this occasion without the considerable presence on the sideline of long-serving manager Brian Cody, recovering from recent heart surgery.

The difference on the pitch was another considerable presence, that of Michael Fennelly. So often in recent years in his usual midfield position the towering Ballyhale man has been the pivotal player for Kilkenny; yesterday he lined out at centre-forward and in a tour-de-force first-half display, it was his 2-2 from play that saw Kilkenny lead 2-7 to 0-11 at the break, despite playing into a stiff breeze.

Tipperary were dogged, and even with a number of forwards failing to fire they hung on to Kilkenny’s coat-tails to the end. Twice they managed to draw level, in the 33rd minute (2-4 to 0-10) and in the 50th (2-10 to 0-16), but those two Kilkenny goals always loomed large. Had Tipp managed to get their noses in front, who knows what might have happened and certainly, with the introduction of youngsters John O’Dwyer and Jason Forde, they finished a better team than they had started.

Rough justice on the Tipperary defence which otherwise played well (several careless clearances apart), as did the final midfield pairing of Brendan Maher and Noel McGrath.

Another triumph for Kilkenny however, another title and a deserved one at that. From what seemed a hopeless position after losing their opening two rounds, staring relegation in the face, they regrouped and with Cody still at the helm, won their next three games to qualify for the play-offs. Now, they’ve taken care of their two nearest challengers, Galway and Tipperary.

Given they achieved all this while blending in several new players, it speaks volumes not just for the talent in the county, but for the way it is being managed, Martin Fogarty and Michael Dempsey proving their worth.

The usual stalwarts all played their part, the likes of JJ Delaney (red-carded in the 45th along with Lar Corbett for an off-the-ball tussle), Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh, Michael Rice and Eoin Larkin. This was also a coming-of-age for several youngsters, most notably two debutants, midfielder Lester Ryan, who continues his phenomenal season, and goalkeeper Eoin Murphy, so sharp off his line. Also taking a big step forward were corner-back Paul Murphy, who had a brilliant game, wing-back Kieran Joyce and new captain Colin Fennelly.

Ultimately though, it all comes back to those two Michael Fennelly goals. On the point-scoring front it was a strange game, most of the points from play coming from the midfield area, Ryan (3) and Rice (1) for Kilkenny, Brendan Maher (4) and the roving Noel McGrath (3) for Tipperary. Noel started as wing-forward and auxiliary midfielder, switched permanently before the end — it will surely become his championship position.

From placed balls Eoin Larkin (6) was doing the necessary for the Cats while Eoin Kelly (4), Seamus Callanan (2), Pa Bourke (2) and keeper Darren Gleeson (1) shared duties for Tipp.

Not a lot between them on that front then but ah, the goals.

The first came as early as the third minute, Kilkenny already with two points on the board when Padraic Maher was robbed of possession by Eoin Larkin, who released Michael Fennelly. A dozen massive strides later and Michael was blasting past a helpless Darren Gleeson.

The second came in the 21st minute, Tipperary having battled back to within a point, 1-3 to 0-5. This one came off the break from a long Eoin Murphy puck-out, Michael finding himself one-one-one with Padraic Maher on the left side of the goal; a shimmy to his right, onto his supposedly weaker left side, another blaster past Gleeson.

From there to the break Tipp out-pointed Kilkenny six to four; in the second half they went almost point for point, 10-9 in favour of Kilkenny. Always, however, those goals stood between them.

Tipperary know, they have work to do to close the gap; Kilkenny know they have Henry Shefflin, TJ Reid, Richie Power and Walter Walsh all waiting in the wings. Not to mention Brian Cody. A team for the ages.

Scorers for Kilkenny: M Fennelly 2-3; E Larkin 0-6 (5f, 0-1 65); L Ryan 0-3; K Joyce, M Rice, C Buckley, R Hogan, C Fennelly, 0-1 each.

Scorers for Tipperary: E Kelly 0-5 (3f, 0-1 65); B Maher 0-4; N McGrath 0-3; S Callanan 0-2 (2f); P Bourke 0-2 (2f); D Gleeson (f), S Bourke, Padraic Maher, J O’Brien, 0-1 each.

Kilkenny: E Murphy; P Murphy, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, K Joyce; M Rice, L Ryan; C Buckley, M Fennelly, E Larkin; R Hogan, C Fennelly, A Fogarty.

Sub for Kilkenny: M Ruth for Fogarty (62).

Tipperary: D Gleeson; C O’Brien, P Curran, M Cahill; C O’Mahony, Padraic Maher, K Bergin; S McGrath (c), B Maher; N McGrath, L Corbett, Patrick Maher; S Bourke, E Kelly, S Callanan.

Subs for Tipperary: J O’Dwyer for Kelly (48); J Forde for Callanan (57); J O’Brien for S McGrath (58); P Bourke for S Bourke (61); J Woodlock for Patrick Maher (67).

Referee: B Kelly (Westmeath).

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