TWENTY points was the Cork target coming into this All-Ireland final. Twenty points was their average all season, and would have won them yesterday’s All-Ireland final and secured that sacred three-in-a-row.
That they fell short of that target, fell four points short, was down to defence, ferocious Kilkenny defence.
It neither started nor ended with those wearing No’s 1 to 7 (keeper is the most critical, remember) — the two midfielders, Derek Lyng and Cha Fitzpatrick, the six starting forwards, the two subs used (Willie O’Dwyer and Richie Mullally), all battled like gladiators, in a cauldron every bit as intimidating as anything ancient Rome every conceived.
This magnificent Kilkenny triumph was grounded in the ferocity shown by those up front, by those in midfield, as they cut off avenue after avenue, outlet after outlet for an increasingly desperate Cork defence. But, ultimately the magnificent seven — the two outfield lines superbly marshalled by James McGarry — denied Cork that magic 20.
You could pick Michael Kavanagh, Noel Hickey, Jackie Tyrell, James Ryall, John Tennyson or Tommy Walsh, name him man-of-the-match, and no-one would really bat an eye. At the time of writing, the official RTE gong hadn’t yet been awarded, but as is the custom here anyway, we’ll name our own.
Tommy Walsh was breath-taking, in nearly everything he did; James Ryall was supreme, on the other flank. The man who gets the nod here, however, is Noel Hickey. Since his return to the Rebel fold in 2004, the value of Brian Corcoran to this Cork team has been well documented. Like DJ with Kilkenny over the years, a score from Corcoran is worth at least double. With one exception, last year’s All-Ireland semi-final win over Clare (when he went into the game less than 100% fit), the Erin’s Own hero has been Cork’s go-to man in time of greatest need. Yesterday, in a fierce physical battle that typified this whole thrilling, absorbing, fantastic contest, Noel Hickey locked up the Cork talisman, threw away the key.
"Battle is right," said an exhausted Hickey. "I don’t think either of us hit a ball really, a lot of pulling and dragging, but Brian is a great hurler. He’s a player that you have to really focus on, be prepared for anything. You can’t afford to take your eye off him, that man is special, a point from him seems to lift the whole Cork team. If you can keep Brian quiet it helps, it kind of runs through their team if he’s playing well."
It does, and yesterday he looked primed, really primed, to play well. He was out strong to every ball, used all his fantastic experience to position himself to best advantage, used his considerable strength to try and win possession. All to no avail; Hickey was simply unbeatable, as were most of those in that suffocating defence.
"A great performance," he accepted. "Backs to the wall stuff a lot of the time, but we got there in the end. One thing there is in this team, a great fighting spirit, we were definitely going to go to the bitter end. We knew Cork would come at us with 10 minutes to go, and they came, but we were ready for it. We’ve been training since last January, and that’s what you have to do if you have any ambition about beating Cork, you have to stop them from delivering the ball. It’s fitness, but it’s just heart really, it drives you on; you don’t feel tired when you’re in the lead coming into the final minutes of an All-Ireland final."
Just before half-time came the game’s pivotal moment, a Kilkenny goal scored by young corner-forward Aidan Fogarty. It put Kilkenny a goal in front, the margin they had at the finish, but it was never a comfort zone, not with this Cork team. Noel knew, his team-mates knew — in a game of this intensity, there could be no let-up in concentration. There was a lapse, five minutes from the finish, allowed Niall McCarthy (who had a super game) in along the endline, pass to Ben O’Connor, goal blasted to the bottom corner. But that was it, shutters back up. "We were prepared for anything — if Cork went ahead we were going to keep battling away, stick to our game. We were worried when they got the goal, there was only a goal in it at that stage, they were coming back at us, but lucky enough we steadied up a small bit. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but we got there in the end."
Got there, and deservedly so, nothing at all to do with luck, nothing. This was a game won on merit, pure and simple, won by the better team, against the odds, and how it will be savoured, Noreside!
"It’s definitely a sweet one, the first time we were ever underdogs up here, some people mightn’t have given us much of a chance. Cork beat us in 2004 and 1999, so we kinda had enough of that, we were right for today. Looking out there afterwards, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Kilkenny fans out on the pitch, it’s fantastic, just as good if not better than the other ones. We got fantastic support; when everyone else wasn’t giving us much of a chance, people in the county rowed in behind us, gave us great backing. They knew coming up they’d be outnumbered in the stands by the Cork supporters, but they definitely weren’t in voice anyway."
So, one dynasty ends, could another be about to begin? The average age of this Kilkenny team is now in the early 20’s; how far can they go? "It’s up to the lads themselves how far they want to go, if the fire and hunger is there anything is possible, no limits."
Yesterday in Croke Park, two giants of hurling clashed; one dream dies, another is born. Magnificent.