Kilkenny produced a storming final five minutes to retain their provincial title when beating Dublin by 1-17 to 1-15 in their absorbing Electric Ireland Leinster MHC final at Croke Park yesterday.
The holders looked in trouble as they fell two points behind in the 57th minute but their ability and composure in the closing stages proved crucial as they struck four unanswered points to confirm their 55th success at this grade.
The difference between the sides was ultimately the greater depth that Kilkenny appeared to have in the final quarter with their manager Pat Hoban quick to acknowledge the impact from the bench.
“The game ebbed and flowed throughout and in fairness to Dublin, I thought they were excellent,” he said.
“We found them very hard to break down, as we knew we would but we kept plugging away and I felt that the substitutes that we brought on made a huge impact.
“Every guy is mad to come in and it was great that they were all able to make a positive contribution.”
For Dublin, the sense of regret and disappointment was etched all over manager Johnny McGuirk’s face as he assessed what might have been for his spirited panel.
“We worked hard and expected our subs to have a greater impact than they did and in fairness to Kilkenny, they got scores at the right time.
“We don’t want moral victories and we want to be winning matches so in that way, we are all really disappointed but on the bright side we have another day out and we’ll be focusing all our energies on that,” he added.
A heavy shower greeted the first whistle with conditions underfoot suffering as a result as Dublin took an early lead through a long-distance free by Matthew Oliver.
However, that score failed to act as a catalyst for a nervous looking Dublin side and, after Andrew Gaffney had restored parity for Kilkenny in the third minute, the holders landed the first blow three minutes later when Tadhg O’Dwyer confidently fired home from 12 metres after slipping inside the challenge of Eoin Foley.
A Joe Connolly point in the ninth minute reflected Kilkenny’s superior start but with Dublin’s running game beginning to draw a number of fouls, Oliver kept Dublin in contention with a brace of well-struck frees.
Fergal Whitely landed Dublin’s first score from play at the end of the first quarter and with Kilkenny kept scoreless for 10 minutes at the opposite end, the Dubs managed to restore parity by the 22nd minute with the economical Oliver landing three successive frees.
Another point from the midfielder inched Dublin ahead three minutes later but Kilkenny regained a degree of control by the end of the half as John Donnelly levelled matters before late points from Gaffney and Donnelly ensured a narrow 1-7 to 0-8 lead for the holders.
Dublin were handed a massive boost within a minute of the resumption as substitute Alex Considine made an immediate impact when bursting through two tackles before firing an unerring finish past Shane Murphy.
Kilkenny replied impressively to that setback with Gaffney firing over two frees to complement an excellent score by the increasingly influential Richie Leahy.
However, Dublin looked unfazed by these scores as they assumed complete control of affairs up until the final quarter, with Oliver and Eoghan Conroy landing two points apiece as the Dubs opened up a healthy three point advantage.
The momentum switched back to Kilkenny with Leahy hitting two points to add to substitute Edmund Delaney’s fine point but with neither side enjoying anything but sporadic bouts of ascendancy, Dublin hit back as Oliver and Considine inched McGuirk’s side tow clear with four minutes remaining.
It was at that point that Kilkenny’s experience shone through and after Leahy and Daniel O’Connor had levelled matters, Conor Hennessy and Delaney struck the vital scores to confirm a thrilling conclusion to affairs.
A Gaffney 0-5 (0-5f), R Leahy 0-4 (0-2f), T O’Dwyer 1-0, J Donnelly, E Delaney 0-2 each, J Connolly, D O’Connor, J Cuddihy, C Hennessy 0-1 each.
M Oliver 0-10 (9f, 1 ‘65’), A Considine 1-1, E Conroy 0-2, F Whitely, D Burke 0-1 each.
S Murphy; M Cody, T Walsh, C McGrath; D Mullen, D Joyce, C Doheny; R Leahy, J Connolly; D O’Connor, T O’Dwyer, J Donnelly; A Gaffney, J Cuddihy, N Walsh.
E Delaney for N Walsh (42), C Hennessy for Gaffney (47), B Sheehan for Donnelly (53).
E Skelly; C Hendricken, C Brady, D Butler; E Foley, P Smyth, D Butler; M Oliver, C Sammon; E Conroy, M Maguire, F Whitely; E Dunne, D Burke, C Burke.
C O’Sullivan for Brady (30), A Considine for C Burke (half-time), A Mellett for Maguire (41), C Dowling for Sammon (49), D Gray for Butler 58).
Michael Murtagh (Westmeath)