By Mark Jones
Cork 0-21, Tipperary 1-10
First the facts. Tipperary have lost their National Hurling League title and Cork are through to meet Kilkenny in next month’s decider. But if anyone is looking for a pointer toward the championship, forget it.
Even if Cork were by far the sharper side in last Sunday’s semifinal at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, and even if a fast start that saw them bolt into a 0-10 to 0-3 halftime lead proved to be decisive, there was insufficient evidence that the Munster hurling order has shifted one iota.
With Tipp missing eight players from last season’s All-Ireland starting lineup, the game was never going to answer every query over both teams’ summer prospects. However, Cork were entitled to take some satisfaction away from their performance.
“It was far more important for us to perform than it was for Tipp,” said manager Bertie Og Murphy. “If we’d lost, there would’ve been a lot of question marks.”
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Defensively, there was a significant improvement with Diarmuid O’Sullivan returning at fullback to snuff out the challenges of both Eugene O’Neill and John Carroll, while Fergal Ryan also turned in an impressive display in the left corner. Cork’s finishing was equally noteworthy with Jerry O’Connor’s six points (four from play in the first half) leading the way. O’Connor’s contribution made up for the absence through injury of Joe Deane and for the surprisingly dropped Seanie McGrath.
“Cork looked good, easily the better team,” admitted Tipp manager, Nicky English. “But this was our ninth match in eight weeks and it’s just got on top of us. We need a bit of breathing space, we need to get all our team back and do some serious preparation for the May 19 Munster quarterfinal clash with Clare.”
The way that Tipp managed to rattle off 1-6 in the closing moments won’t have pleased the Cork faithful, but in truth the outcome had been decided by that stage. Indeed with 23 minutes left, the winners had surged clear by 0-17 to 0-4 with Ben O’Connor hitting four frees in his six-point tally and witth Niall McCarthy adding a stylish 0-3.
Finally, Eoin Kelly snapped up the contest’s only goal and if Lar Corbett had made more of two scoring chances that came his way there could’ve been a tighter finish to proceedings. Appropriately, O’Sullivan restored order with a mighty 80 yard free to the Blackrock end goal.
Kilkenny 2-14, Limerick 0-15
Limerick may have started this semifinal as simmering favorites for the National Hurling League title, but they were soon taught a lesson at the Gaelic Grounds by a shorthanded Kilkenny. Despite having two players sent off in the closing stages, the winners held their nerve and would surely have dealt with any late Limerick surge had it materialized.
The dismissals of Eddie Brennan and Philly Larkin, which were augmented when Limerick’s Donie Ryan was also sent for an early shower by referee Pat Horan, all came about during a fraught ending. The fact that Brennan and Larkin both walked for second bookable offenses that won’t now rule them out of the final was little consolation for an irate Brian Cody.
“Both were sent off in the wrong,” said the Kilkenny manager. “I’m not one for criticizing referees but that’s the way I feel right now. If it’s a crime to say what you think, then I’m a criminal. Eddie [Brennan] was only trying to hook a player, yet he’s booked and sent off, and to be honest, I can’t make head nor tail of it.”
In the end, though, Kilkenny had a much more to be pleased about as Henry Shefflin inspired his side with yet another exquisite performance. Shefflin scored 1-7 (1-5 from placed balls) and proved to be with the fulcrum of the attack with several superb assists. Such was his brilliance that Martin Comerford’s impressive 1-4 from play almost went unnoticed.
While Kilkenny were progressing nicely despite the absence of several big-name players, it was hard to fathom how Limerick had slipped so far from the levels they had demonstrated in their win over Clare a week earlier.
“We were flat,” admitted manager Eamonn Cregan, “and in a way it’s a sort of kick in the backside for us because we were playing with such confidence and to suddenly be shattered like that. We were very nanve under the dropping ball. We think we’ll get the ball without physical contact and that doesn’t happen in matches and we’re going to have to learn that.”
Two first-half goals went a long way to upsetting Limerick’s challenge. First, Shefflin drove home a penalty after Joe Quaid had fouled Stephen Grehan. Then, two minutes later, Shefflin provided the flick on for Martin Comerford to stylishly find the net once more. It was 2-6 to 0-10 at the changeover, but Limerick never got back into contention. Mark Keane’s freetaking touch deserted him and Ciaran Carey and Stephen Lucey struggled to make any impact at midfield.
With Kilkenny down to 13 men in the last 10 minutes, the time was ripe for a serious Limerick riposte. It never materialized; it was that sort of day for the home team.
Antrim qualified for the Div. 2 Hurling League final when they were convincing 4-14 to 3-8 winners over Kerry at Newbridge last Sunday. Brian McFall was the star of the show with 2-7, a total which set up a final meeting with Laois who got the better of Down by 2-12 to 2-9 at Drogheda.
Meanwhile, Meath were relegated from Div. 1 when they were defeated 2-16 to 2-12 by Derry after extratime at Brewster Park. It finished 1-11 apiece at the end of normal time, but with Geoffrey McGonigle contributing 0-11, Derry eventually came through.
In football, Dublin won a first Leinster under 21 in 18 years with an impressive 1-17 to 2-4 victory over Wicklow in last Sunday’s final at Newbridge.