Ruthless Kilkenny in a league of their own


Kilkenny 3-21 Cork 0-16:LIKE THE Spanish Inquisition, another traumatic examination which, according to Monty Python, nobody expected, yesterday’s Allianz Hurling League final came as a shock to Cork after their hitherto encouraging season.

Kilkenny, their injury woes transformed into a showcase for up-and-coming talent, seized control in the opening minutes and never looked like relinquishing it for the remainder of the match.

In adding the league to the All-Ireland won last September, Kilkenny have emphatically re-established the county’s dominion going into the imminent championship season and have now won nearly two thirds (13 out of 21) of all senior league and championship titles in the past 10 years.

More daunting for all aspiring contenders was the manner in which the team shrugged off what would be for any other team the massive injury losses of Henry Shefflin, who has missed the whole campaign, Richie Power and Michael Rice – half of last year’s All-Ireland winning attack and three current All Stars.

All six starting forwards scored from play and the sharpness and precision of the team’s play brooked no argument from Cork who learned the hard way that space and opportunity are at a premium against Kilkenny, even at this stage of the year.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy spoke honestly afterwards about how he hadn’t expected the step-up from last month’s league defeat of the same opponents to yesterday’s final to be so steep and he reminded the media that he hadn’t been blowing smoke when emphasising throughout the campaign that his team had a lot to learn.

Yet it must have been disappointing to watch the disintegration of the team’s prospects within 10 minutes of the throw-in by which stage Kilkenny led by 10, 2-5 to 0-1. At half-time there were changes to the spine of the team.

Full back Stephen McDonnell and centrefielder Lorcán McLoughlin were replaced. Shortly afterwards full forward Paudie O’Sullivan went whereas centre forward Patrick Cronin was never allowed the sort of influence he had been steadily developing throughout the campaign.

Central positions in turmoil, the consolation was that the younger players made more of a fight of it.

Conor Lehane had a go throughout but without any stability around him he was too frequently on his own; when he did make a promising incision after about half an hour he was perfunctorily fouled. Darren Sweetnam added dynamism to centrefield where the team had struggled.

Not that Kilkenny can’t take similar encouragement: rookies Richie Doyle and Cillian Buckley in particular confirmed their rising reputations

Ten years ago when the same counties reached the final Cork rolled back a similar deficit only to lose narrowly in injury-time. This time around the only recovery was that Cork weren’t outscored in the second half but equally they made no inroads into the punitive 14-point (0-6 to 3-11) deficit.

A year ago Kilkenny looked ragged when a similar injury list was exploited by Dublin. This time there were no chinks in the armour. Eoin Larkin reminded us that his dead-ball taking had helped his club James Stephens to the 2005 All-Ireland club title and availed of most of the awards while out the field Paddy Hogan boomed over a couple of long-range frees and, for good measure, one from play.

Larkin also registered the first goal, striking beyond goalkeeper Martin Coleman, who might have hoped to do better, in the fifth minute. Five minutes later a turnover by Cronin was zipped down the field and ended in a goal when Larkin’s pass gave Colin Fennelly a clear chance.

Patrick Horgan picked off a scattering of points from frees but as a response it was like wrapping newspaper around a leaking pipe. Kilkenny spelled danger whenever they attacked – Matthew Ruth adding to his reputation with three from play in the first half – and just before half-time TJ Reid pounced on Coleman’s poor clearance to fire home Kilkenny’s third goal.

The champions understandably lost urgency in the second half but still never allowed Cork to make significant inroads into the lead. In the 59th minute Paul Murphy made a superb intervention to keep out a Luke O’Farrell shot after one of Sweetnam’s breaks.

There was one significant concern in the departure on a stretcher of current Hurler of the Year Michael Fennelly with an, as yet, undiagnosed ankle injury.

KILKENNY: D Herity; P Murphy, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; T Walsh (0-1), B Hogan, R Doyle; M Fennelly (0-1), P Hogan (0-3, two frees); R Hogan (0-1), TJ Reid (1-2), C Buckley (0-1); C Fennelly (1-4), E Larkin (1-4, three frees), M Ruth (0-3). Subs: K Joyce for Delaney (ht), J Mulhall for M Fennelly (42 mins), M Bergin (0-1) for P Hogan (62 mins). Yellow cards: JJ Delaney (29), P Murphy (35)

CORK: M Coleman; S O’Neill, S McDonnell, B Murphy; S Ó hAilpín, E Cadogan, W Egan (0-1, free); J Gardiner (0-1), L McLoughlin; C Lehane, P Cronin, N McCarthy (0-1); L O’Farrell, P O’Sullivan, P Horgan (0-9, six frees, one penalty). Subs: C O’Sullivan for McDonnell (ht), D Sweetnam (0-2) for McLoughlin (ht), C Naughton (0-1) for P O’Sullivan (46), J Coughlan (0-1) for McCarthy (50). Yellow Card: Gardiner (47)

Referee: J McGrath (Westmeath).