A HURLING masterclass in Croke Park yesterday, mighty Kilkenny retaining their Leinster title (and setting a new record in the process, seven in a row) against a Dublin side whose challenge never even got to first base.
"They came out hard," said despondent Dublin manager Anthony Daly; "We were expecting it — maybe we were expecting it too much, and it comes to you then."
And maybe that was Dublin’s problem, over-anticipation of the backlash that was certain to come from the Allianz Hurling League final of a few months ago. Dublin walloped Kilkenny that afternoon, 12 points the final margin, but it was a weakened Kilkenny, and with the likes of Henry Shefflin, Eoin Larkin, Michael Fennelly and Tommy Walsh all back in the fold, this was always going to be a very different challenge.
But were Dublin overanxious, over-concerned, fearful even?
Certainly it looked like that in the opening quarter, at the end of which Kilkenny led 2-5 to 0-3, a couple of superb angled drives from Eoin Larkin (11th minute) and the flying Colin Fennelly (21st minute) doing the major damage, with Henry also in superb shooting form.
Everywhere Kilkenny were dominant, youngster Paul Murphy slotting in seamlessly beside veterans Noel Hickey and Jackie Tyrell in a dominant full-back line, Brian Hogan colossal at centre-back, Tommy Walsh magic on the wing, Michael Fennelly dominant in midfield, while up front, that well-oiled scoring machine — Richie Power orchestrating from centre-forward — just cruised smoothly through the gears despite the best efforts of an overworked defence, full-back Peter Kelly outstanding.
For the remainder of the half, Dublin managed to settle but even so the margin had been extended at the break, 2-10 to 0-7, despite Alan McCrabbe’s two fine points and free-taker Ryan doing the bulk of Dublin scoring.
Dublin did have one half-chance, in the 33rd minute, a goalmouth scramble in which it looked like the ball was about to trickle over the Kilkenny line after rebounding from Noel Hickey’s helmet. The huge Dublin support in the 33,814 attendance all roared in unison, willed the ball home, but acrobatic keeper David Herity just managed to reach back and get the vital touch.
Oh, how Dublin could have done with that goal, how this game could have done with that goal!
"Killers," Daly had labelled the two early Kilkenny goals, killers they were, and when in the eighth minute of the second half Henry did what Henry does, ghosted around from left wing to right and into glorious open country, spotted and found with a perfect pass by TJ Reid, there was only ever going to be one result — third goal Kilkenny, 3-12 to 0-9, game all but over.
Dublin did rally, and in the 57th minute a 25-metre free from slightly left of centre by their magnificent free-taker Paul Ryan deceived everyone on the Kilkenny goal-line and at 3-13 to 1-13, gave Dublin hope.
Only very briefly, however; seconds later, from the Kilkenny puckout, the outstanding Richie Power laid off the deftest of passes to the supporting Michael Rice, who drilled past Gary Maguire.
And that was most definitely that, even on a lovely sunny summer’s day in Croke Park, lights out for Dublin.
"It was our first real down day this year," added Daly, "but in fairness to Kilkenny they showed their class, you can’t take it away from them. I suppose the league final teed it up a bit for them but we have no excuses; we knew there was a backlash coming, we were ready for it — we thought. But it’s very hard to beat them, as we’ve seen over the last six or seven years, it’s only the very odd time they’re beaten.
"We have to pick up the pieces now — we were having a good year, we don’t intend to finish now."
This was as fine a performance as we’ve seen from Kilkenny in some years, Shefflin looking as sharp, as hungry and as brilliant as ever
They’re still with us, aren’t they?
Scorers for Kilkenny: H Shefflin 1-9 (0-7f); M Rice 1-2; E Larkin 1-2; C Fennelly 1-0; R Hogan 0-2; R Power, B Hogan, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Dublin: P Ryan 1-9 (all frees); A McCrabbe 0-2; C McCormack, C Keaney, M O’Brien, D Plunkett, 0-1 each.
Subs for Kilkenny: P Hogan (Delaney 35); J Fitzpatrick (Reid 52); M Ruth (Larkin 71); J Mulhall (Power 71).
Subs for Dublin: M O’Brien (Boland 22); P Schutte (Gough 35); D O’Dwyer (Carton 35); D Plunkett (Lambert 44); S Ryan (O’Callaghan 65). Blood sub: Plunkett (Keaney 39/40).
Referee: B Kelly (Westmeath).