Kilkenny 1-28 Antrim 3-15
Antrim will have days like this. Days when their limitations leave them with too much to do against top-line teams who fancy using them for shooting practice. Days when they show flashes of what they are capable of without really making them count for enough. When the mere taste of the top flight reminds them of the distance they still have to travel.
And yet, they were far from disgraced here. Darren Gleeson’s side came to Nowlan Park and scored three goals and wouldn’t have been in the least bit flattered by two or three more. Despite spending the first half chasing Kilkenny shadows - and going in with an eight-point margin for their troubles - they were back level within 10 minutes of the restart.
They never threatened to win but they steadfastly refused to be hammered. You have to go back a while to find the last Kilkenny-Antrim fixture where that was the case. Keep doing like they’re doing and they will surely have enough about them to stay in Division One. Baby steps.
“The consistency wasn’t there for us today,” said Gleeson afterwards. “We probably weren’t allowed - Kilkenny are a serious outfit. But we just didn’t work hard enough in the first half and if we don’t do that, we’re in trouble. We recovered it well. We just have to learn how to finish it out at that level.
“Kilkenny play their style of hurling. they push the ball into the areas that put pressure on you and they do it consistently. We weren’t able to retain the ball inside in the first 15-20 minutes and we got punished for it.
“It wasn’t nervousness or anything like that. We just didn’t get to the pace of the game. And when you don’t work hard, you won’t get to the level of the game. From 8-to-15, we didn’t get the work-rate we look for. That’s it, simple as that. And then in the second half we did. We just have to be consistent in that against the big teams.”
For Kilkenny, this was a mixum-gatherum afternoon. Brian Cody sent out a panel with no TJ Reid, no Walter Walsh, no Richie Hogan and Eoin Murphy in the number 16 shirt for the day. Only eight of the team that started the All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford got the nod here. And though they had a slight wobble early in the second half, they still swished a handy 1-28 pulling up.
Kilkenny were a bit wasteful in the first half, racking up nine wides before the break. They were also a good bit more tippy-tappy than usual, elaborating their way through the lines to an extent that wouldn’t be guaranteed to have them purring in the stands if there was a crowd present. It was weird to see them turn down shots from mid-distance in favour or another pass to an over-lapping runner. Weird but kind of fun, at the same time.
Alan Murphy took on Reid's role from placed balls to pretty decent effect. James Bergin had a beano of a first half at top of the right, nailing three points from play and generally causing havoc. Young Hurler of the Year Eoin Cody cracked the Kilkenny goal on 24 minutes, profiting from a thrusting run down the throat of the Antrim defence by Richie Reid. It all added up to a 1-11 to 0-6 lead for Kilkenny at half-time, which felt just about right.
But Antrim found their moxy in the dressing room at the break. They rattled off 2-3 on the bounce in the space of five minutes, with smartly-finished goals from Conal Cunning and Ciarán Clarke taking chomps out of the Kilkenny lead. James McNaughton had a lordly second half at centre forward, wafting points from all angles and distances. By the 45th minute, they were level, 2-10 to 1-13.
They needed not just the next score but a heap of next scores. They didn’t get them. Instead, Kilkenny knuckled down to their work. They got the next score through Conor Browne. And the next through Murphy. And the next, and the next, and all the next - eight in a row after the Clarke goal. Antrim stuck at it but there was no mystery left in the game from that point on.
“There is belief there, absolutely,” said Gleeson. “We just couldn’t push on when we got back level. It took an awful effort to get back level. We expended everything you’d need to finish a game out just to claw our way back into it. Kilkenny are champion finishers, that’s what they are.”
By contrast, Antrim are only starting.
Kilkenny: Darren Brennan; Tommy Walsh, Huw Lawlor, Paddy Deegan (0-1); David Blanchfield, Pádraig Walsh, Conor Browne (0-2); Richie Reid (0-1), Cillian Buckley; Liam Blanchfield, Eoin Cody (1-1), Martin Keoghan (0-2); James Bergin (0-4), Adrian Mullan (0-3), Alan Murphy (0-13, 0-9 frees). Subs: John Donnelly (0-1) for Blanchfield, half-time; Joey Holden for Deegan, 46 mins; Conor Fogarty for Reid, 57 mins; Tadhg O'Dwyer for Bergin, 61 mins; Michael Carey for Buckley, 66 mins; Eoin O'Shea for Cody (temp), 71-72 mins
Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Damon McMullan, Ger Walsh (0-1), Stephen Rooney; Eoghan Campbell, Paddy Burke, Joe Maskey; Keelan Molloly, Neil McManus (1-0); Niall McKenna (0-1), James McNaughton (0-6, 0-2 frees), Michael Bradley (0-1); Conal Cunning (1-1), Conor McCann (0-2), Ciarán Clarke (1-3, 0-3 frees). Subs: Eoin O'Neill for McKenna, 49 mins; Conor Johnson for Cunning, 52 mins; Domnhnall Nugent for Molloy, 52 mins; Phelim Duffy for McMullan, 55 mins; Daniel McCloskey for McCann, 63 mins; Shea Shannon for Clarke, 66 mins; Ciaran Johnson for Rooney, 66 mins
Referee: Seán Stack (Dublin)