THERE was much more to be gained by the Limerick hurlers in Thurles yesterday than the mere consolation of losing the Allianz Hurling League final to a Kilkenny side which had the bonus of superb goalkeeping from James McGarry in the first-half and another high yield from Henry Shefflin’s scoring power.
Joe McKenna’s well-prepared side will realise that they pushed the champions hard for three-quarters of an intriguing contest and will go into the Munster championship in a fortnight with arguably their strongest side of recent years.
A 12th-minute goal from Eoin Larkin and a second just before the break from Shefflin camouflaged some uncharacteristically poor shooting by Kilkenny. Additionally, McGarry’s heroics, which saw him make a double save immediately after Larkin had goaled and deny Andrew O’Shaughnessy, gave them a three-point lead which sustained their challenge until Shefflin’s second goal — in the 56th minute — effectively decided the game.
The victory enabled new GAA President Nickey Brennan to present the trophy, an act that was all the more symbolic for the reason that in the last meeting of the counties in a final in 1983, he was right-half back on the first ever Kilkenny side to retain the title.
Undoubtedly undermined by the loss of the injured Mark Keane, who had scored 2-10 against Clare the previous week, Limerick showed a lot of confidence from the early stages, when corner back Damien Reale’s timely hook prevented Aidan Fogarty from goaling straight from the throw-in. It was notable that Limerick led 0-3 to 0-2 after nine minutes, following two long-range frees struck by the returning Barry Foley and that from a stage where TJ Ryan looked in trouble against Shefflin, they grew with confidence all over the field.
That was partly due to the fact that the service to Shefflin was inconsistent, that both Brian Geary and Ollie Moran were clearing a lot of ball from centre back, before Mark Foley thundered into the game in the left corner. And, Limerick were exerting a lot of pressure in attack, mainly through Conor Fitzgerald’s probing play on the left flank.
And, as the game developed, both of their central players, Stephen Lucey and Brian Begley were to create difficulties, even though it was only Lucey who showed an ability to take scores. Another significant factor was that Kilkenny began to waste chances — they finished the half with eight wides — and this undermined the excellent work of John Tennyson at centre back and, to a lesser extent, Tommy Walsh on his left. Behind them, the full-back trio coped well under pressure, even if both Michael Kavanagh and Noel Hickey were stretched at times by the pace of O’Shaughnessy and Foley’s crafty play.
Larkin’s goal, coming from a crossfield ball hit at pace by Shefflin and brilliantly taken on the run by the James Stephens man, effectively separated the sides for the greater part of the half. And, yet it might have been very different had not McGarry made extremely good saves from O’Shaughnessy and Barry Foley in quick succession (in the 14th minute). Instead, the next goal fell to Kilkenny, in the 36th minute, when Larkin’s strong run down the centre set up Shefflin. It saw Kilkenny turn over with a three-point advantage (2-4 to 0-7).
The game remained evenly balanced for the opening 10 minutes of the second half, with the sides swapping two points. Crucially, while Limerick increased the pressure — showing great resilience, strength in the tackle and solid support play — they gained nothing by way of a decent scoring return for a huge amount of effort.
Fitzgerald was again prominent, O’Shaughnessy continued to probe and Begley’s height and strength tested JJ Delaney. However, Kilkenny’s general covering saw them cope well, with Tennyson and Walsh both very effective and Tyrrell doing better once he found his form. Up front, substitute Willie O’Dwyer was a good addition on the right wing and inside him James Fitzpatrick was to finish strongly.
Three points separated the sides before Kilkenny struck for their third goal 21 minutes after the resumption. Again Larkin (at centre forward) was the provider and Shefflin applied the finishing touch. However, Limerick complained afterwards that a Kilkenny player (Martin Comerford) had fouled the ball before passing to Larkin.
A few minutes later, Kilkenny hit their first wide of the second half, but while this might have been seen as a marked improvement on what happened earlier, the fact is that they didn’t create all that many chances. Nevertheless, once they had doubled their advantage on the scoreboard, they were never going to lose their grip on the trophy.
Scorers: Kilkenny: H. Shefflin 2-6 (0-3 frees; E. Larkin 1-0; A. Fogarty and J. Fitzpatrick 0-2 each; M. Fennelly 0-1. Limerick: B. Foley 0-6 (0-5 frees); C. Fitzgerald 0-4; S. Lucey 0-2; B. Begley and N. Moran 0-1 each.
KILKENNY: J. McGarry; M. Kavanagh, J.J. Delaney, N. Hickey; J. Tyrrell (capt.), J. Tennyson, T. Walsh; D. Lyng, R. Mullally; R. Power, M. Comerford, E. Larkin; J. Fitzpatrick, H. Shefflin, A. Fogarty.
Subs: W. O’Dwyer for Power (38th minute); M. Fennelly for Lyng (56th).
LIMERICK: B. Murray; D. Reale, T.J. Ryan (capt.), M. Foley; O. Moran, B. Geary, D. Moloney; M. O’Brien, S. Lucey, C. Fitzgerald; A. O’Shaughnessy, B. Begley, B. Foley.
Subs: N. Moran for O’Brien (51st minute); S. Hickey for M. Foley (injured) and P. O’Grady for D. Ryan (62nd).
Referee: D. Kirwan (Cork). Diarmuid Kirwan made a small number of mistakes on both sides (one of which particularly annoyed Limerick) but overall he did a good job of refereeing.