It appears those cunning Sicilians knew something about hurling, in addition to the protection racket. There’s an old Mafia saying that real power can’t be given: it must be taken.
Travellers from the southern capital who arrived in Thurles for a coronation saw the proof of that maxim yesterday. Kilkenny have long established that regime change is necessarily confrontational and those anticipating a new age will have to wait a while longer for the dawn, as a 3-21 to 0-16 scoreline doesn’t suggest the Cats are minded to abdicate peacefully any time soon. Kilkenny produced a masterful display, with emphasis on the word ‘master’. A well-worn sports writing expression has it that a team imposes its game on opponents, but it was a cliche made flesh in Semple Stadium yesterday. Kilkenny played at their level and beat Cork comprehensively.
“If we were weak in any position we’d have been punished, and we were decent throughout the field,” said Kilkenny boss Brian Cody. “Everybody dug in. Nobody has to do anything fantastic, everybody just has to do their job for the team, so we were happy with that.”
Asked if decent was perhaps an early front-runner for euphemism of the year, Cody opened up a little: “No, it was a good performance. I’m not trying to underplay it or overplay it, we went out and had a huge challenge. Cork were fancied by many people, understandably so, and the last day they were better than us. We went out to try to take on the challenge and did so.”
Cork will rue their opening ten minutes yesterday for a long time, a period Kilkenny collected 2-5 to Cork’s solitary point. After three minutes Eoin Larkin tried to play a colleague in on goal with a crossfield ball and he goaled himself a minute later.
Since Cody took over, Kilkenny have used goals like adrenaline injected straight into the heart, and it was the same yesterday. TJ Reid’s goal before half-time ended the game as a contest, and the second-half was a long time passing if you weren’t in black and amber. Not that chemical jump-starts were needed. Kilkenny’s aggression and commitment won them the ball in every line of the field. Cork newcomer Conor Lehane admitted afterwards it was the highest intensity he’d encountered on a playing field, and he didn’t look alone in that.
There being a good deal of talk about manliness in the course of the last week it was interesting to see the game’s level of physicality – a neologism over which lexicographers surely lose sleep, but which summed up the difference between the two sides.
For instance, Cork manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy will surely have noted JJ Delaney’s strategic foul on a goal-bound Conor Lehane in the first-half and the lack of similar strategic cruelty in the run-up to Reid’s goal just before the break. That is not to suggest Kilkenny won the game through brute force: their touch and vision were exemplary, and the movement of players such as Eoin Larkin and Matthew Ruth in the forward line exceptional.
Conditioned as we are to think of Kilkenny as a team inclined to break down the door, at times they were stealthy as pickpockets in the open spaces of Semple Stadium. More than once a Cork defender found himself within touching distance of the corner-flag, minding his marker, while Kilkenny forwards enjoyed acres of room to manoeuvre in front of the Cork goal.
Twice Cork players fluffed lifting the sliotar for frees, which hinted at nerves, a diagnosis echoed by Barry-Murphy (“didn’t see why we would be but we were very nervous early on,”) as he analysed the game.
“I think we were always going to get a knock along the way,” said Barry-Murphy “I didn’t think it was going to be as comprehensive. We made some fundamental mistakes that didn’t make our task any easier early on, errors didn’t help us and they capitalised on them. They really are a great team, they go for the jugular when they get the chance. I’d like to be in that position some day.”
Barry-Murphy was the manager who left Semple yesterday with pressing questions. He and his management team may have to revisit the construction of their full-back line, who were under huge pressure yesterday, while the dynamism of Darren Sweetnam, when introduced in the second half, suggested Cork cannot afford to omit him for their Munster semi-final, though Barry-Murphy pointed out they didn’t want to play him yesterday because he is facing his Leaving Cert.
For Cody the imperatives are slightly different. He won a league title by 14 points without Henry Shefflin, Richie Power and Michael Rice, while he also lost Michael Fennelly and JJ Delaney to injury.
How good will Kilkenny be when all those players are back?
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