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Offaly collapse gifts title to Cats

ANOTHER bloodless Leinster title for Kilkenny, this one at U21 level, to go with the senior and minor titles already in the bag, another kick in the guts for Offaly.

It was the usual story, one we’ve seen twice already this year in the senior equivalent, when Kilkenny dismissed both Offaly and Wexford in turn.

Halfway into this one, on a sultry evening in O’Connor Park in Tullamore, we had a game on our hands, a real contest. Match tied, 1-6 for Offaly, 0-9 for Kilkenny, the two teams headed to the their respective dressing-rooms with the applause of an enthusiastic and appreciative crowd of over 5,000 ringing in their ears.

There was no breeze to speak of, no forceful elements into which Offaly would be playing in the second half, so what happened? Same thing as happened to their seniors against Kilkenny nearly six weeks ago, same thing as happened Wexford a couple of weeks later — they disappeared after the interval. One team went in, another came out, masqueraders in Offaly jerseys. How else to explain?

How else did a side that hurled with so much confidence, so much authority, in the first half, come out and play like a side that had never seen each other before, like a side that hadn’t seen a hurling pitch or sliotar this year?

Leaping and jumping under every puckout, theirs and Kilkenny’s, they couldn’t get the ball to hand; then when it went to ground, they were prodding, poking, but couldn’t get it off the floor.

It’s not hurling trainers these guys need, it’s sport psychologists, and plenty of them. Just to look at it in microcosm; the Offaly half-forward line for most of this game consisted of Daniel Currams, Joe Bergin and Derek Molloy, all of whom impressed in the big senior championship win over Limerick a few weeks ago — those three big Offaly guns, those three ace forwards, were matched score for score from play on the evening by their half-back markers. Two points they managed (big Joe’s two goals came from placed balls), one each from Bergin and Molloy, while Lester Ryan and Paddy Hogan each pointed long-rangers for Kilkenny. Dismal stuff if you were an Offaly hurling supporter.

Kilkenny started well, led 0-4 to 0-2 after 11 minutes courtesy of points from Richie Hogan (2), midfielder Niall Walsh and wing-forward TJ Reid, Derek Morkan and Colm Coughlan with the Offaly minors.

Back came the home side, however, and it was 0-6 apiece on 23 minutes, some fine passages of hurling in between. Matthew Ruth (familiar name, son of same) then came in with another Kilkenny point, before the first goal of the evening, a blasted penalty by Bergin after the ever-dangerous Coughlan had been brought down. Two points for Kilkenny (the hard-working John Mulhall, very impressive when shifted to centre-forward, and Hogan again) had it back to a tie at the break, and hopes were high among the home supporters. And then came the second half — "Like groundhog day," reckoned one disgruntled local pressman afterwards, "We’ve almost come to expect it at this stage."

Ironically, it was another Offaly point that set the stage, a beauty from the diminutive Coughlan (yes, son of Ger) after a superb catch of a Francis Kerrigan crossfield ball. And that was it.

First, a procession of Kilkenny points, the magnificent TJ Reid winning puckout after puckout, setting up score after score. Colin Fennelly, Nicky Cleere, Hogan, all benefited, all pointed, as did TJ himself, a 50m sideline the pick of TJ’s final tally of 1-3.

TJ’s wasn’t the first Kilkenny goal, however, that honour fell to Nicky Cleere, and it came at a time when Offaly still had hope, albeit slim. 41st minute, the score standing at 0-14 to 1-8, Offaly just having taken their second shot at the Kilkenny goal in the second half, Joe Bergin notching the point, TJ soars for the subsequent puckout, grabs, solos, lays off a handpass, picked up by Cleere in the clear (Conor Hernon, one of Offaly’s best backs on the night, slipped), goal.

TJ’s goal? Came 11 minutes later, and cruelly for him, it was Hernon again the culprit, his attempted handpass out of defence intercepted by Cleere, who returned the favour to TJ. The second Offaly goal came from a 30m Bergin free, deep into added time, simply put a gloss on the finish.

What’s left to be said about either Kilkenny or Offaly? It was a romp, a rout, but Kilkenny did what they had to do. Offaly? There’s a lot of soul-searching to be done after this, some honest self-assessment needed.

Scorers for Kilkenny: TJ Reid 1-3 (0-1 s/l); R. Hogan 0-6 (0-4 frees); N. Cleere 1-1; C. Fennelly 0-3; J. Mulhall 0-2; P. Hogan 0-2 (0-1 free); L. Ryan, N. Walsh, M. Ruth, J. Maher, 0-1 each.

Offaly scorers: J. Bergin 2-1 (1-0 pen, 1-0 free); C. Coughlan 0-4 (0-2 frees); D. Horan 0-2 (both frees); D. Molloy, D. Morkan, 0-1 each.

KILKENNY: C. McGrath; P. Murphy, K. Joyce, E. O’Shea; L. Ryan, P. Hogan, N. Prendergast; J. Dowling (C), N. Walsh; C. Fennelly, N. Cleere, TJ Reid; M. Ruth, J. Mulhall, R. Hogan.

Subs: J. Maher (Ruth 55); JJ Farrell (Reid inj. 56); K. Mooney (Murphy 60).

OFFALY: J. Dempsey; C. Hernon, B. Watkins, S. Wynne ; G. Treacy, B. Leonard, D. Morkan; D. Horan, C. Mahon; D. Currams, C. Egan, D. Molloy; F. Kerrigan, J. Bergin (c), C. Coughlan. Subs: J. Gorman (Mahon 37)

Referee: A. Stapleton (Laois).

Attendance: 5,000 est.