WE’LL start with the good news for Dublin hurling – a scarce enough commodity in Croke Park yesterday. Firstly, the minor conveyor belt remains in fine working order, suggesting that one of these fine July days, the seniors will finally break a Leinster title hoodoo that now stretches back over 50 years and counting.
Secondly, if it’s true that you learn far more in sober defeat than intoxicating victory, then Dublin should emerge from this demoralising examination with a PhD in what is required to become a genuine All-Ireland challenger. In other words, just study the Black and Amber blueprint. For the moment, however, the Allianz League champions of 2011 must be reclassified as Liam MacCarthy pretenders, not actual contenders. For almost the entire 70 minutes, there was a grim inevitability about the 4-17 to 1-15 setback against a Kilkenny team that has reaffirmed its title credentials, and in the most emphatic manner too. Dublin were already on the back foot before Eoin Larkin’s 11thminute howitzer from the tightest of angles started the goal rush.
By half-time the gap was out to nine points: Colin Fennelly had left Oisin Gough in his wake for a 20th-minute goal, while David Herity made a goalline save at the far end that left us wondering was the Kilkenny netminder a contortionist in his spare time. Dublin craved a quick goal response on the restart, but whereas Simon Lambert failed to bat home a gilt-edged chance after 38 minutes, Henry Shefflin didn’t require a second invitation when released by TJ Reid four minutes later. And so a script that many, in truth, had predicted – goal-hungry Cats versus goal-shy Dubs – was unfolding before our eyes. Only once in the second half did Dublin threaten an unlikely impression of Lazarus.
That came when Paul Ryan rifled home a 57th-minute free through a thicket of bodies: the margin was reduced to six and the Hill suddenly found its voice … for all of, maybe, 20 seconds. Shaken and stirred into retaliatory action, Kilkenny went straight down the field, Richie Power’s slick lay-off released Michael Rice on the run, Gary Maguire’s net danced for the fourth time and it was game, set and match all over again. Afterwards, Anthony Daly didn’t try and disguise the gulf that existed on the day. Any other assessment would have flown in the face of logic.
And yet, this is not to say that a full strength Dublin playing to maximum potential are always destined to finish on the wrong end of defeat to Kilkenny – especially by a double-digit margin such as this. Put it this way. Yesterday they were deprived their first-choice full-back, Tomás Brady; their firstchoice centre-back Joey Boland, has played minimal hurling for the past three months and was understandably labouring as a result; while their Man of the Match in that league final, Ryan O’Dwyer, was a frustrated and suspended spectator.
All season long, Daly and his selectors have overcome a succession of injury setbacks – partly because Dublin possess a strengthin- depth they could only dream of previously, and partly because their belief in the squad is so resolute. But there comes a time when absentees will inevitably hurt: specifically, when the bar is raised by a heavyweight rival and when too many of your fit players are struggling for the type of form they have revelled in all season. Yesterday was one such galling occasion for the boys in Blue.
For all the manful resistance provided by ‘makeshift’ full-back Peter Kelly and substitute midfielder Maurice O’Brien, and for all the placed-ball economy of Paul Ryan, Dublin had no answer to a virtually fullstrength Kilkenny displaying plenty of their old hunger and intuitive class. The latter had never been questioned, but doubts about their allegedly waning appetite abounded in the wake of their 12-point capitulation to Dublin in the aforementioned league final. Some of those questions were answered against Wexford last month.
Quite a few more were answered here. In fairness, you could make a compelling argument even before yesterday that this game was set up for an emphatic Kilkenny riposte. Firstly, it would have been fanciful not to expect some class of a backlash given that Kilkenny had failed to beat Dublin in three earlier outings this year. Secondly, the fact that Tommy Walsh, Michael Fennelly, Richie Power and Henry Shefflin were all now restored to the team – having sat out the May Day disaster through injury – was bound to make a massive difference.
So it transpired: all four had a positive impact here, with Walsh our choice for Man of the Match and Shefflin a close second. Where Kilkenny laboured with three different free-takers in that earlier clash, Shefflin nailed seven here with a missed ‘65’ the only blot on his placed-ball copy. Moreover, King Henry’s influence in open play was far more pronounced than in his comeback game against Wexford, and that can only augur positively for their All-Ireland ambitions. Those ambitions can now be distilled down to 140 minutes: they face a semi-final against back-door opposition unknown on August 7. For Dublin, the quarter-finals now loom on July 24.
Their belief has been unshakable for much of this eventful 2011 journey; they can’t allow yesterday to erode that confidence but they must also absorb the many painful lessons included therein. Next time out, O’Dwyer will be back and presuming he channels his aggression more productively than he did against Galway, the Tipp man can make a profound difference. Boland, too, should be back closer to his true self in three weeks’ time. But other pivotal players such as skipper Johnny McCaffrey, Liam Rushe, Conal Keaney and David O’Callaghan will also have to bring their ‘A’ games to that do-or-die event. If they do, then maybe all is not lost for the deflated Sky Blues