IT WAS slipping away from Limerick, and eventually Kilkenny ripped it off them.
The Treaty County never came out for the second half and left the back door open. Kilkenny snuck in time and again, with two goals in the space of a few minutes — among an interrupted run of 2-5 for the Cats — snuffing out the game.
It was increased application that did it. Whereas Limerick won the dirty ball (or 50-50 ball) battle in the first half, Kilkenny did so after the break. Having lost 35-25 in that sector before the short whistle, Brian Cody sent his men out to win 40 of the 67 contested balls after the interval. That provided the wind to blow down Limerick’s house of cards.
From a team that lost 70% of that particular area against Galway in the Leinster final, it was a marked improvement from a side now in its 17th consecutive All-Ireland semi-final.
It took time and perseverance to gain an authoritative upperhand but there were signs all along. Limerick tired from the effort they had put in, as they had against Tipperary.
Because the Treaty were fighting so hard to make a game of it, they keeled over. You could see their players waiver. Wayne McNamara fumbled a ball he shouldn’t have to allow Eoin Larkin put an uncontested shot over the bar early in the second half.
The Adare wing-back was then caught for holding on too long on 49 minutes, fouled TJ Reid on 50 (both scored), and looked a little weary as the game wore on. Indeed he could have been sent off for a loose swipe across Cillian Buckley late on.
The lesson for Limerick being that you can’t keep running up the hill at 90mph for 70 minutes. All the while, there was economy to Kilkenny’s scoring efforts that continuously suggested they would be heading for the All-Ireland semi-finals. When they weren’t scoring goals, they were creating them. Unlike the opposition.
Limerick wanted to isolate Kilkenny but all too rarely did they manage it after the first minute. For the throw-in, the entire forward line pulled outfield in the hope that Sean Tobin would run Jackie Tyrrell and so it was — it ended in a free and a point.
David Breen got his goal after Tommy Walsh coughed up possession and Graeme Mulcahy turned Paul Murphy to score a point soon after but there wasn’t enough penetration in isolation.
That’s not to say that Limerick didn’t try to play smartly; they did. Niall Moran — who impressed whenever he got service — and Breen noticeably went up for high balls with the hurleys because it was a tactic that worked so well for Galway. It both helped to win possession and stopped those momentum-building claims. But as the game wore on in Thurles though, it was notable that Kilkenny started to pluck aerial ball through Michael Rice and Co. He and Michael Fennelly took over, as the dirty ball stats exhibit.
Everything had to go right for Limerick to win and, for a while, it did. They got their first five shots on goal to return scores but a combination of bad luck and worse play cost them. Donal O’Grady made a great puckout catch on 17 minutes but was blocked down needlessly — quickly a direct ball into the square by midfielder Fennelly caused a stir and Henry Shefflin shook the net.
Moran hit his side’s first wide on 20 minutes — though it might actually have been score — and then Kilkenny got a second goal from the restart. O’Grady dived for a low ball when he didn’t need to, and Colin Fennelly flicked it up past him beautifully before Shefflin lifted it past the onrushing Nicky Quaid.
Two goals in a few minutes; the same dose in the second half killed the game off. For number three, corner-back Stephen Walsh travelled down a cul-de-sac with a short puckout and, after mis-hitting to Michael Fennelly, it ended up in his own net. Avoidable, but Limerick know they escaped on more than one occasion too.
Which is why Kilkenny are so dangerous coming into the semi-final against Tipperary. Even if Richie Hogan is suspended for a silly swipe across Sean Tobin, and if his namesake Brian doesn’t return to replace the impressive Kieran Joyce.
Kilkenny created a total of seven goalscoring chances on Sunday and might have had a few more if Hogan and Larkin hadn’t missed their pick-ups at the start of the second half. Aidan Fogarty got one of the goals and he looks a form forward right now; he was one of the few to impress when he came on against Galway.
Yet his performance paled in comparison with Colin Fennelly’s. Though at times he looks incapable of a clean strike on the ball, Fennelly’s touch is thus that he is in the open road before you know it. Hence how he set up Shefflin’s goal, got his own, and knitted so many moves together. Essentially, what he usually does.
It wasn’t vintage Kilkenny and, like Tipperary, there are reasons to doubt them. But with any team that can create goals at such as ease, there is fear.
*Follow Shane Stapleton on Twitter: @ShaneSaint