By Mark Jones
Kilkenny 5-14, Offaly 1-16
All-Ireland champions Offaly were handed a hurling lesson in last Sunday’s Leinster final at Croke Park as Kilkenny issued a sharp warning to the rest of this summer’s championship contenders. Kilkenny were fast, skillful and ferociously determined as they swept their provincial rivals aside.
Their fowards destroyed the Offaly defense and the county’s prodigal son, D.J. Carey, produced a performance reminiscent of his best days. Not content with his own contribution of 2-3, Carey brilliantly laid on the fifth goal for Henry Shefflin with an exquisite pass.
Kilkenny as good as had the result settled by halftime, when they led by 3-7 to 0-8 with two of the goals coming from Carey and the third courtesy of Charlie Carter. Although Offaly manager Michael Bond insisted that his team would still have a major say in the destiny of the title, on this sort of form, they have no chance.
Yet, no one who remembers the events of last year will rule Offaly out. There was a sense of deja vu in Kilkenny winning the Leinster title and Bond’s players having to regroup. Regroup they did 12 months ago and by the time September came around, they were good enough to turn the tables on Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final.
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And now, Offaly are trying to keep their season alive via exactly the same route. A meeting with Antrim in the quarterfinal shouldn’t hold too many pitfalls, and then, who knows? "Some of our players have missed two-thirds of our training," said Bond, "so all we can do now is improve. I think we’ll have a big say in matters before the season’s over."
Equally, Carey wasn’t about to dismiss Offaly’s chances. "We could be playing them in the All-Ireland final again," he said. "We’d like to be there and so would they. You shouldn’t rule them out."
But a lot of work clearly has to be done. The defensive frailties were evident right from the start as the Kilkenny forwards took the game by the scruff of the neck. The recalled John Power and the obvious progress made by Shefflin gave the attack a menacing look. Carey pounced for the first goal after 20 minutes after a move which was started by the excellent Willie O’Connor getting the better of Billy Dooley.
Carter helped himself to the next when he infiltrated the Offaly ranks and kicked the ball past Stephen Byrne, and then Carey was on the mark again when Byrne and Martin Hanamy failed to deal with a dropping ball.
"A goal can be a killer blow to any team," Carey said, "We were lucky enough to get most of ours fairly early."
Offaly had a few options to halt their spectacular slide, but Brian Whelahan’s move up to wing forward and Michael Duignan’s retreat to wing back didn’t make an appreciable difference. Just four minutes into the second half, Brian McEvoy charged through for another goal, Carter clipped over a point and at 4-8 to 0-8, Offaly were finished.
Most of the losers’ later efforts were mopped up by the Kilkenny defense in which Tom Hickey, Canice Brennan and O’Connor were outstanding. Andy Comerford was also on top of his game at midfield, although he was lucky not to have been sent off after a clash with Offaly sub, Daithi Regan. Both players pulled wildly, but Regan got his marching orders for throwing a punch as well, while Comerford was booked by Limerick referee Pat O’Connor.
Johnny Pilkington restored a semblance of pride with a personal total of 1-3 in the final 15 minutes and at one stage, Offaly had reduced the deficit to 7 points, however, Carey’s superb hand pass put Shefflin in the clear for goal No. 5 and any lingering doubts of a revival were gone.
"They ripped us apart," said Kevin Martin, the Offaly defender.
Kilkenny have a leaner, more hungry look than last year. This might be their summer after all.
Galway 4-26, Roscommon 2-8
The scoreline and the result were both eminently predictable as Galway took the Connacht hurling title with an easy victory at Hyde Park. Nothing about the game gave manager Mattie Murphy much solace as the second half turned out to be glorified target practice for the hot favorites.
"The whole championship system is crazy," fumed Murphy. "The provincial championships should be abolished and the top 16 counties should be drawn to play in a round-robin format of four groups of four teams. At least that might be fairer to counties like Galway and Antrim."
Roscommon were in contention until just before the break when Kevin Broderick drove home the first of Galway’s goals to leave the halftime score at 1-11 to 0-5.
"We were allowed so much time on the ball," said Joe Cooney as his team hit three more goals in a one-sided second half.
As for the merits of having a Connacht final at all, Murphy continued his tirade against the system.
"We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t," he said. "If we only win by seven or eight points, we’ll be told we’re on the slide."
Antrim 2-19 Derry 1-9
Even if it doesn’t appear that way, Derry turned the Ulster hurling decider into a tense, tight affair. The underdogs had only been trailing by two points at the interval and when Geoffrey McGonigle whipped in a goal early in the second half, they have moved into a surprise lead.
Antrim, predictably, responded, and with a quarter of an hour remaining they were 1-12 to 1-8 in front, but Derry were awarded a penalty and, suddenly, a shock result looked to be in the cards. However, McGonigle, who scored an impressive 1-7, made a hash of the pick-up and somehow drove the shot wide.
That miss knocked the stuffing out of Derry and Antrim pulled away to win convincingly and set up a quarterfinal meeting with Offaly. Only 1,800 spectators bothered to turn up at Casement Park last Saturday, prompting calls for the final to be always played on a Sunday.
Down 2-14, Tyrone 0-15
Down’s long-serving manager, Pete McGrath, has never been one to get carried away after a win, but in the wake of last Sunday’s Ulster football semifinal at Casement Park, McGrath was simply effusive.
"That was as good as anything I’ve seen from a Down team before," the delighted manager said.
The game turned out to be a sensational transformation as Down came back from a 6-point deficit to destroy Tyrone during the second half. Tyrone looked lost after the break as the winners gained in confidence minute by minute and they now must be looking forward to the final against Armagh on Aug. 1.
Significantly, though, Down won’t forget the opening stages, during which they were only making up the numbers. With Gerard Cavlan in total control of midfield and the Tyrone forwards picking off scores with ease, it was 0-9 to 0-3 just before halftime.
Then out of the blue, Down got their act together. Ross Carr, who had come in for the injured James McCartan, kicked two points. Gerard Deegan and Paul Higgins added two more and, suddenly, the game was on again.
In the middle of that scoring burst, Finbarr Caulfield had brilliantly dispossessed Peter Canavan to set up one of Carr’s points. That seemed to lift Down’s sagging spirit.
"That incident was immense," McGrath said. "It lifted the whole team. Peter is a hugely important player to Tyrone and he’s extremely difficult to mark. I think that Finbarr did as well on him as anyone has in recent years."
The change of mood carried through into the second half when a piece of Mickey Linden artistry created a goal for Ciaran McCabe, and with the impressive Shane Mulholland roaming every inch of the pitch, Down were in full flight, outscoring their opponents by 2-7 to 0-6 over the 35 minutes.
Mulholland put McCabe through for his second goal with a superb pass and, despite their bad opening, Down supporters were beginning to talk about a repeat of the county’s All Ireland triumphs in 1991 and ’94.