WHAT a display by Kilkenny in this historic first All-Ireland semi-final meeting between these two traditional powerhouses of hurling yesterday, what a statement.
Just 24 hours earlier we had seen Kerry, the other reigning All-Ireland champions, the other team seeking a three-in-a-row this year, give an exhibition as they crushed the challenge of Galway in the All-Ireland senior football quarter-final.
Like Cork in the hurling, Galway are a side that plays the game in the purest sense, and like Galway can do with Kerry, Cork can match Kilkenny in skill, in pace, in panache, in pride, in endeavour.
Where Galway couldn’t match Kerry on Saturday, however, where Cork couldn’t match the Cats yesterday, is in pure power, in strength in depth, in sheer will to win.
A goal and 23 points Kilkenny finished with, and that’s superb scoring in any hurling game; in an All-Ireland semi-final, against a defence of Cork’s justified reputation, it is truly magnificent.
And yet, and make no mistake about this, Kilkenny’s win wasn’t based on awesome firepower, it came about as the result of strangulating, suffocating defence.
Where do you start with this Kilkenny team? PJ Ryan is rock solid in goal, but like James McGarry before him, looks destined never to win an All-Star, simply because that defence never lets him get tested.
Michael Kavanagh was up against a real star of the future yesterday in Patrick Horgan — one point conceded; Noel Hickey was back on the edge of the square, and a thunderous hour was given emphasis after emphasis with clearance after clearance, poor Joe Deane devoured without salt.
Jackie Tyrell in the other corner was given the task of handling Cork speedster Cathal Naughton — scoreless; then in came Jerry O’Connor on Jackie for the second half — scoreless again.
In the half-back line, Tommy Walsh was conceding several inches to Cork’s new targetman Patrick Cronin, puckout after puckout raining down on that area; while Tommy wasn’t his usual flamboyant evident self, he did his defensive duties superbly — result? Pa managed one point, Cork lost most of those puckouts.
Brian Hogan at centre back — Niall McCarthy taken off, utterly stymied, unable to make any real impact. Then JJ, good old JJ Delaney, former hurler of the year, wing-back on one of his favourite victims, Ben O’Connor.
Ben has been on a really rich vein of form with Cork, starred in the two comeback wins over Clare and Galway in the lead-up to this game, but against JJ — once more into the fond embrace of the Johnstown python, held scoreless from play, albeit at the concession of a few scored frees.
Midfield also they were dominant, and though Cha Fitz and Derek Lyng each managed a mighty second half point, first order of business is defence, and those two are top notch.
It’s up front, however, that this defence really starts. They did it in the minor game in the earlier win over Tipp, did it again in this one — the Kilkenny forwards just will not allow an easy clearance.
It almost seems a point of personal pride; whatever about getting the name on the scoresheet, no-one wants to be seen to be conceding a free shot out of defence to their own man, to any man.
Thus it was yesterday that Cork were suffocated, the life slowly squeezed out of them. Mind you, and in fairness to the Kilkenny backs, they do appreciate that work done up front, and they do return the favour, send forward the kind of ball over which any forward worth his salt would drool.
And there was much of that kind of ball yesterday, not up the middle, where Ronan Curran and Diarmuid O’Sullivan (his best game for Cork this year, a colossus again) dominated, but up the flanks, where most of the Kilkenny scoring was done.
And yet, for the opening 20 minutes, none of this looked on the cards. Toe to toe they went, blow for blow, a hurling match played at an intensity and at a level we hadn’t seen before this year as the two dominant teams of the past decade went at it.
Five points apiece after those 20 minutes and we had scarcely had time to draw breath, Henry Shefflin showing his return to real form with four of those five Kilkenny points, two from play, Cork getting their usual scoring contribution from midfielders Jerry O’Connor and Tom Kenny, a point apiece.
So what happened? Why did this game change shape, change direction? It was that defence, referred to afterwards by manager Brian Cody. A run of 1-7 without reply suggests potency in attack, and that was there in abundance, from Eddie Brennan, Aidan Fogarty, Larkin and Henry; gradually, the tens of thousands of expectant Cork fans who dominated in the 71,235 attendance were shocked into silence.
And contradictory as it may read, shock it certainly was, slowly though it came. There was no reply, no answer. "The platform for that run was built earlier," said Brian, and he was right.
Kilkenny had been applying the squeeze from the start, but now it really began to tell. During this period Cork were unable to win their own puckout, and surprisingly, they persisted in going up the left wing, lost eight of 11 there, Pa Cronin crowded out every time the ball came to earth, an easy target for the Kilkenny defence/midfield combination. Result of that scoring burst? Half-time lead of 1-12 to 0-7, commanding lead.
Cork did come back in the second half, and there was even a period when it looked they might work a major miracle, back to a five-point lead in the 47th minute, 1-14 to 0-12, five successive points putting the Cats on the back foot.
A little ‘sos’ was needed, something to break the Cork momentum — enter Eoin Larkin, again. This time it wasn’t using his footwork, nor his stickwork, it was using the head. Down he went, calling for assistance, over went the ref (and Michael Wadding, let it be noted, had an excellent outing), the physio, the doctor; a few vital minutes, Eoin recovered his health but more critically, Kilkenny recovered poise. The next attack was Kilkenny’s, the next score was Kilkenny’s, and they were back on track.
Magnificent, truly magnificent, a convincing win against a class side, and this Cork undoubtedly still are.
They can be criticised for not making the hard decisions on the line earlier than they did, should have taken off Joe Deane, Niall McCarthy, Cathal Naughton well before the break, should have given Neil Ronan, Paudie O’Sullivan and Timmy McCarthy more game time, but overall, would it have made a difference to the final result?
Put a gloss on it perhaps, but no, this Kilkenny side are a team apart. Or they are, until the second Sunday in September at least.
Scorers for Kilkenny: H. Shefflin 0-9 (0-5 frees 0-1 65); E. Larkin 1-2; E. Brennan 0-4; A. Fogarty 0-4; J. Fitzpatrick, D. Lyng, W. O’Dwyer, TJ Reid, 0-1 each.
Cork scorers: B. O’Connor 0-8 (all frees); T. Kenny 0-2; P. Horgan, C. Naughton, P. Cronin, J. O’Connor, J. Gardiner, T. McCarthy, N. Ronan (free), 0-1 each.
KILKENNY: PJ Ryan; M. Kavanagh, N. Hickey, J. Tyrell; T. Walsh, B. Hogan, JJ Delaney; J. Fitzpatrick, D. Lyng; H. Shefflin, R. Power, E. Larkin; E. Brennan, M. Comerford, A. Fogarty.
Subs: W. O’Dwyer (Comerford 54); TJ Reid (Power 60); M. Rice (Fitzpatrick inj. 68).
CORK: D. Óg Cusack; S. O’Neill, D. O’Sullivan, B. Murphy; J. Gardiner (c), R. Curran, S. Óg Ó hAilpín; T. Kenny, J. O’Connor; B. O’Connor, N. McCarthy, P. Cronin; C. Naughton, J. Deane, P. Horgan.
Subs: K. Murphy (Sars, Deane 35); T. McCarthy (N. McCarthy 62); N. Ronan (Horgan 62); P. O’Sullivan (Naughton 65).
Referee: M. Wadding, ( Waterford ). Good job.