Not so fast lads, not so fast. On the surface you might think so, but consider the circumstances. Kilkenny are indeed reigning National League and All-Ireland champions, have been supreme for the last four seasons, but, even after losses to Tipperary and Cork in consecutive weeks, any thought that they might be struggling is nonsensical.
They came to Páirc Uí Chaoimh yesterday still without the services of Michael Kavanagh, Noel Hickey, Cha Fitzpatrick, Derek Lyng, Michael Fennelly, Henry Shefflin, Martin Comerford and TJ Reid. Michael Rice – their leading forward last week – was ruled out by injury, Eoin Larkin is still working his way back to full fitness after coming back from injury, and Eddie Brennan only came on as a late sub, making his first appearance of the new year. Then, there was the little matter of a 27 points humiliation at Nowlan Park last year to be avenged by Cork, who were roared on by a partisan home crowd of over 10,000.Finally, compounding all Kilkenny’s problems, after a bit of a skirmish between several players just before half-time, corner-forward Michael Grace received a red card (harshly as he wasn’t any more culpable than several others), reducing the Cats to 14 for the remainder of the game.
Reigning champions or not, then, the odds were seriously stacked against Kilkenny but they battled Cork right to the wire and lost absolutely nothing in defeat. A side on the slide? Hardly, a fact reflected in the post-match reaction of manager Brian Cody, a man not given to accepting defeat very easily.
“There were a lot of good things from our point of view. We were disappointed to lose, as ever, but we were reasonably happy with the performance.”
Cody was happy with a number of new players particularly, not least goalscorer John Mulhall. The manager admitted: “He was very good, he’s been showing food form for us. He’s a newcomer to the panel and he has a lot of positives to his game. John Dalton had a very good game at corner-back, he cleared a pile of ball. The attitude was good, the spirit was good because it was a big ask to play the whole of the second half with 14 men. We were genuine to the very end.”
That’s the word, exactly – genuine. Talent is always a given with Kilkenny, but under the baton of Cody, and no matter what 15 take the field, we’ve come to expect nothing less than 100% genuine effort.
Cork were fired up yesterday, raced into a four-point lead after eight minutes through John Gardiner (65), Tom Kenny and corner-forward Patrick Horgan (2), who looked razor sharp.
Eventually Kilkenny got into their stride and by the time of the Grace sending-off were back within a point, 0-8 to 0-7. Grace had two scores, both from play (as had the talented Mulhall), so his loss was always going to be felt. Nevertheless it was Kilkenny with first blood after the dismissal, Richie Power with his fourth point of the half after Niall McCarthy was wild with a pull on Tommy Walsh, leaving it tied at the break on 0-8 apiece.
The second half was much like the first, a dogfight resumed. It wasn’t pretty, made even less so by a pitch that was cutting up badly, but it was certainly entertaining, both sides showing fantastic commitment. With the loss of Grace, Kilkenny were forced to work extra hard, but Cork too – to their credit – were grafting, to the extent that at times they were outswarming Kilkenny at the renowned swarming game the Cats have perfected over the last four years. They needed to work that hard, however, as Kilkenny, through Mulhall’s opportunist goal after 14 minutes of the second half, edged into a lead they would hold until the 63rd minute. The introduction of Jerry O’Connor and Paudie O’Sullivan, however, made all the difference for Cork, and they scraped home.
“The spare man probably helped us,” admitted Cork boss Denis Walsh. “I think John Gardiner in particular would have been able to read the play and picked up a few scores (the wing-back was outstanding, man-of-the-match). We were under a bit of pressure, the lads that came in off the bench did a good job and that makes me enthusiastic going forward. Paudie O’Sullivan was very sharp, but we’ve seen that (in training). He was out with an operation on a knee injury for the last month or two but he was very sharp before that. We saw there today, coming in for 20 minutes, everything he touched he was sharp and he was unlucky he didn’t get a goal.”
A good win then for Cork, plenty of encouragement, even if the twin tower concept (Aisake O hAilpín and Michael Cussen alongside each other for the last ten minutes or so) is still unproven.
Plenty of encouragement for Brian Cody and Kilkenny also, however.
Scorers for Cork: J. Gardiner 0-7 (0-3 frees, 0-2 65s); P. Horgan 0-4 (0-2 frees); N. McCarthy 0-2; P. O’Sullivan 0-2; T. Kenny, C. Naughton, J. O’Connor, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Kilkenny: R. Power 0-7 (0-5 frees); J. Mulhall 1-3; M. Grace 0-2; E. Larkin 0-1.
Subs for Cork: J. O’Connor (M. O’Sullivan 48); P. O’Sullivan (Horgan 57); M. Cussen (B. O’Connor 50).
Subs for Kilkenny: E. Brennan (O’Dwyer 43); J. Ryall (PJ Delaney 56); S. Cummins (JJ Delaney inj. 68).
Referee: Dickie Murphy (Wexford).