At half-time in yesterday’s All-Ireland hurling quarter-final in showery Semple Stadium, a shock looked like a very real possibility, Limerick belying their massive underdog tag with a first-half display of poise and class, trailing at the break by just a single point (2-7 to 1-9).
They’d played into a stiff breeze to boot.
Even seven minutes into the second half, that shock still looked likely, Limerick easily containing the anticipated Kilkenny backlash after Brian Cody’s half-time tongue-lashing. Points from team captain David Breen and corner-forward Seanie Tobin in reply to a point gifted to Kilkenny captain Eoin Larkin, had the teams level in the 42nd minute, Limerick poised to drive on.
Then it happened, the maelstrom. Twelve minutes of mayhem, 12 minutes during which Limerick lost their way in Semple Stadium, 12 minutes during which Kilkenny found their true selves and just like that, 2-8 to 1-11 became 4-13 to 1-11, Kilkenny notching 2-5 without reply. Game lost, game won, game over.
Limerick continued to battle, and a straight red card for Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan for an out-of-character pull across Seanie Tobin in the 56th minute gave them hope. They managed a series of points but goals were what was required and against a defence in which Tommy Walsh was masterful at wing-back, JJ Delaney suffocating at full-forward, and yet another veteran, Jackie Tyrrell, was back to his bone-crunching best, those goals were never going to come.
Having mentioned the old guard, one must single out the three younger guys in that Kilkenny defence also for praise. Paul Murphy has blossomed into one of the best corner-backs in the land, wing-back Richie Doyle becomes more impressive with every game, while centre-back Kieran Joyce, thrown in at the deep end here after a late injury to Brian Hogan, did a great job, well on top, in the second half especially.
Limerick had looked so good in that first half. Shane Dowling opened the scoring inside a minute with a pointed free, David Breen goaled spectacularly with an angled drive in the 12th minute, following good work by Graeme Mulcahy, and they were full value for their one-goal lead (1-3 to 0-3) in the 16th minute, Kilkenny looking very much at odds with themselves as they struggled to come to terms with the ferocity of Limerick’s play, full-back Richie McCarthy typifying their effort with a mighty display.
Not for the first time in his 14-season career it fell to Henry Shefflin to relieve the pressure. Two goals and two points Shefflin scored in that first half, and chart-topper though he is in all-time championship scoring, that 2-2 (the second goal truly magical, a soft screw-shot from an acute angle spinning into the net) is probably the most valuable he has ever scored in any one game. It gave Kilkenny a lifeline, helped them to that slim one-point half-time lead, their hopes still very much alive.
That second half was all about those 12 minutes. It started with an Aidan Fogarty point, though there should in fact have been a free out for Limerick following a foul by Shefflin. Next up was a Colin Fennelly point, two frees pointed by Shefflin (Richie Power had been taken off just before half-time, victim of a perfectly legitimate but crunching shoulder from Wayne McNamara), another Fogarty point, before the double-whammy.
Two goals in just over a minute, two goals in which the last line of Limerick’s defence was left cruelly exposed. First it was Michael Fennelly finding Fogarty with a terrific long-range pass, no-one to beat but Nicky Quaid, Aidan with time to move into the 13m line totally unopposed and pick his spot. That was the 54th minute, made the score 3-13 to 1-11; a minute later, the second goal, again the inside line caught napping, Eoin Larkin throwing out a lovely handpass to the flying Colin Fennelly, his rocket giving Quaid absolutely no chance.
Such a pity it ended as it did for Limerick but that’s Kilkenny, that’s what they’re capable of doing to any team that loses its concentration for even a few minutes. Limerick will be back, Kilkenny are back and even with the two Richies (Power and Hogan) now set to miss the All-Ireland semi-final, nobody in Tipperary should be counting any chickens yet.
Scorers for Kilkenny: H Shefflin 2-6 (four frees); C Fennelly 1-2; A Fogarty 1-2; R Power 0-2 (1f, 1 65); T Walsh, M Fennelly, E Larkin, R Hogan, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Limerick: D Breen 1-1; D Hannon 0-4 (2f); S Dowling 0-4 (3f); G Mulcahy 0-2; P O’Brien, N Moran, S Tobin, K Downes, T Quaid, 0-1 each.
Subs for Kilkenny: TJ Reid (Power inj. 35+1); C Buckley (Fogarty 66); M Ruth (Larkin inj. 66).
Subs for Limerick: S Hickey (Condon inj. 37); K Downes (Breen 56); P Browne (Dowling 60); T Quaid (Tobin 64).
Referee: M Wadding (Waterford).
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