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Cats hold off Dublin’s final charge

ANOTHER Leinster senior hurling title for Kilkenny, their 10th under manager Brian Cody, their 11th in the last 12 years, but contrary to so many predictions, and unlike so many other Leinster finals in recent seasons, this was not a damp squib – anything but.

Dublin were strong yesterday, played with considerable intelligence, stayed within touching distance of the current All-Ireland champions for the full 70 minutes. Two goals separated the sides at the end, two pieces of individual brilliance from an unusual source for Kilkenny – Martin Comerford, unselfish provider turned ace finisher – and there is no arguing with the final result.

But, while Dublin lost their chance at glory, they won considerable respect for a display worthy of any occasion.

Remember this, Kilkenny won their last two Leinster titles by an average margin of 17 points, won their last two All-Ireland crowns by an average of 15, and those wins came against teams who would be seen as eternal top tier, Wexford, Limerick and Waterford. Yesterday then, Dublin were supposed to be lambs to the slaughter, mere cannon fodder for the big guns from Kilkenny; well, the big guns were spiked, Henry Shefflin held scoreless from play (though he did earn a couple of pointed frees), Eoin Larkin with just two points, Eddie Brennan and Aiden Fogarty with just one each, while Richie Power failed to find the target at all, didn’t even manage a shot at the posts.

Fortunate it was for Kilkenny, then, that Comerford was as sharp as he was.

For his first goal, 17th minute of the first half, Dublin looked to have matters under control but were undone by a combination of bad luck and good skill. Just outside the Dublin 20m line Richie Power was gang-tackled by four defenders, about to be whistled for overholding the ball, hand-passed hopefully into space; in rushed the super-alert Martin to pick up at pace, kick to the net with the outside of the boot, the soccer skills honed in his younger days with the Freebooters in Kilkenny paying rich dividends.

That score put Kilkenny 1-4 to 0-3 ahead, set them on the road to their 1-10 to 0-7 half-time lead, and those who had predicted annihilation were nodding their heads.

Dublin, however, had other ideas. Three points on the trot immediately after the break had the margin back to three, also had their strong support in the reasonable crowd of 29,347 in good voice. It remained close ‘til the 56th minute, 1-16 to 0-15 at that stage, Dublin still very much in contention, when Martin again struck gold.

This time there was no question of luck, bad or otherwise; a moment of genius from Kilkenny midfielder Michael Rice (yet another magnificent outing) to pick out the run of Comerford in behind the Dublin cover, superb control from Martin to take the pass without breaking stride, then another piece of sublime finishing skill, this time with the stick, a gentle flick over the advancing Gary Maguire.

While there was never a sense that Dublin were going to win this one, that goal really was the end. Seven points clear, Kilkenny were not going to be caught, and with JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh, John Tennyson and Jackie Tyrell now well on top at the back, the goal that Dublin so badly needed just wouldn’t come. The closest call was a snap shot from the superb Alan McCrabbe, deflected over in an outstanding reflex save by PJ Ryan; otherwise, Kilkenny comfortably saw out the closing minutes.

Still, it was a contest, and remained so ‘til the final whistle from a very impressive referee, Johnny Ryan from Tipperary, Dublin never giving up the chase.

A commendable performance, a performance built on fitness, on strength, on skill, on heart, but also built on good planning, for which much credit must go to manager Anthony Daly. Dublin lined out with Alan McCrabbe in the right corner of attack but very quickly moved into tactical defensive mode, midfielder John McCaffrey dropping back to act as sweeper in and around the half-back line, McCrabbe heading to midfield, leaving a two-man inside forward line.

With the canny Michael Kavanagh as an extra defender for the Cats it meant that Dublin were going to really have to work for any scores they managed, and 18 points was an impressive return in the circumstances. However, it was a damage limitation exercise, designed to keep Dublin in the game for as long as possible, then go hell-for-leather for the win in the closing stages.

Worked well in the league match between the teams in Nowlan Park, when the Dubs were just pipped at the death, might have worked just as well here but for the brilliance of Martin Comerford. There are those who will say that Kilkenny under-performed yesterday, that they weren’t at full tilt – nonsense. They played as well as they were allowed play, and this Dublin team will yet pose a serious threat in this championship.

Kilkenny though – once again this year they’ve been tested, once again they’ve been seriously questioned, but, as against Tipperary in the league final, as against Galway in the Leinster semi-final, once again they’ve come up with the correct answer.

Dublin matched them yesterday in almost every facet of the game, but fell in the area where Kilkenny are most adept – guile. Ah, these Cats, these cunning Cats.

Dublin had heroes, every last ounce sacrificed to ensure that not alone would they not be humiliated, they would do the county pride. They did that, and more. But, on a day when their brightest and best up front were held, and well held, Kilkenny still found a way to win. Leinster champions again, but now, and with Galway also in the frame, kingpins of a championship worthy of the name. Honour earned (Dublin), honour preserved (Kilkenny), honour restored (Leinster championship) – good day all round in Croke Park.

Scorers for Kilkenny: M. Comerford 2-4; H. Shefflin 0-6 (all frees); E. Larkin 0-2; D. Lyng 0-2; M. Rice, T. Walsh, E. Brennan, A. Fogarty, 0-1 each.

Scorers for Dublin: A. McCrabbe 0-12 (0-8 frees, 0-1 s/l); D. Treacy 0-3; D. O’Callaghan, K. Flynn, J. Boland, 0-1 each.

Subs: TJ Reid (Power 51); J. Fitzpatrick (Brennan 62).

Subs: D. Curtin (Flynn 50); S. Lambert (Durkan 50); D. Sweeney (Ryan 57); P. Carton (Rushe 64); R. O’Carroll (McCrabbe inj. 64).

Referee: J. Ryan (Tipperary).