A fantastic night in Portlaoise.
Ah, just fantastic. Fantastic for Dublin. Fantastic for hurling. Fantastic for the GAA. Fantastic for Irish sport, even.
And that was the thing. The evening’s narrative belonged to Dublin, not to Kilkenny. Don’t be in any doubt on that score.
Sure, there was plenty to say about Kilkenny. Ample fodder for a post-mortem, and it may only have to wait another week. But Saturday was, top to bottom, start to finish, about Dublin, not about their opponents.
The most striking aspect of it all? Not the ending of a seven-decade wait, not the sight of Anthony Daly finally getting a win against Kilkenny in his ninth attempt as manager, but rather the fact that Dublin did it so comfortably. They won and they won more convincingly than the scoreboard implied.
This was no upset. Not on the formbook, not on the pattern of the exchanges. Nor did the underdogs pull some kind of tactical rabbit from the hat with which they contrived to flummox their opponents. They didn’t have to. Not when they could outhurl them instead.
Dublin were calm and composed and collected and watchful. Their heads didn’t explode in sight of the winning line. Their skills didn’t break down under pressure in the last ten minutes, unlike in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick. They hurled like grown-ups.
There were no last-ditch heroics, no goal-line clearances. The one goal-line clearance that did occur came at the other end and it turned out not to matter, because seconds later Danny Sutcliffe drilled the loose ball to the net and the boys in blue had a buffer zone that Kilkenny couldn’t – and didn’t seriously threaten to – breach.
Stamp on the gas all they might, Kilkenny no longer get a response. Not this particular, Henry-less Kilkenny side. Time and attrition have robbed them of their top gear, even of their next-to-top gear.
And of their goals. Three games this summer, one goal. The figure tells its own story.
The only time they threatened here, the one fleeting moment of peril for the winners, occurred when Walter Walsh cut in along the endline in the 44th minute and tossed a handpass into the danger zone. Michael Carton had read it and the crisis was averted.
That was about the height of it. Gary Maguire didn’t have a shot to save all evening. And had Paul Ryan been on-message with his 65s, Daly’s team would have won with something to spare.
In racing parlance: “Winner led from pillar to post. Never troubled.”
The form line held up. Kilkenny hurled much the same as they had six days earlier – in other words, leadenly, with no variety, imagination or incisiveness up front. Dublin hurled a little better than they had first time around; certainly they did so for longer.
They started well, which was important too. Three points up after eight minutes and four up at half-time following a five-point contribution from Dotsy O’Callaghan. That last bit was not the product of chance; Dublin kept arrowing diagonal ball inside for O’Callaghan and he kept coming out to it, turning his marker and popping the sliotar over the bar.
Kilkenny, diligent but laborious, had the gap back to a point when Sutcliffe pounced for the goal. Mark Schutte promptly added a point and now there was five in it.
The MacCarthy Cup holders had found it hard enough pegging back the points.
Pegging back a goal would prove beyond them. Those corroded gears again.
For nine years Daly has been trying to crack Kilkenny’s Enigma machine, that most impenetrable of hurling codes. Trying and failing, and sometimes failing horribly, but always coming back for more.
On Saturday he deconstructed it at last. In the process he gave the old game a night for the ages.
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