By Shane Murray
Defending champions Kilkenny claimed their 30th Guinness All-Ireland Hurling title to draw level with Cork in the all-time standings with a comprehensive seven-point victory over a gallant Limerick in wet conditions in front of 82,127 at Croke Park today.
Having lead from the second minute, the defending champions played with authority and style to emerge as convincing and deserved winners.
After the match, Kilkenny manager Brian Cody dedicated the victory to goalkeeper James McGarry and his family. McGarry's wife Vanessa died in a road accident earlier this year.
Cody's men were not to be denied another crown as they went for the jugular from the off, storming into a 2-02 to 0-00 lead within ten minutes.
The impressive Eddie Brennan opened the Cats' goal account with a superb turn and strike in the ninth minute, while Henry Shefflin added a second a minute later when he held off Stephen Lucey to tap the sliotar home from the edge of the square. James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick supplied the ball in both times.
Limerick fought gallantly and kept chipping away at the Cats' lead; three points from Ollie Moran, pointed frees from Andrew O'Shaughnessy, and a few other contributions left them trailing by 2-10 to 0-08 at the break. But with the lively Eoin Larkin impressing for the Cats - he stuck over four points from play in the first half - Kilkenny kept the margin wide.
Kilkenny faced into the second half under something of a cloud in fact with Shefflin joining Noel Hickey - who hobbled off with a pulled hamstring after 20 minutes - on the sidelines for the second half with suspected cruciate ligament damage, but despite an early brace of points, Limerick couldn't take full advantage.
Things started well; the Kilkenny full-forward line was kept quiet throughout, and Larkin was also handled better - he couldn't add to his tally after the interval - and Limerick managed to reduce Kilkenny's lead to six points in the 47th minute with a nicely taken goal when Ollie Moran reacted quickest to a breaking ball around the house, rising the sliotar and slotting it home from close range to give Limerick fans a glimmer of hope.
However, scores from substitute Richie Power (0-04), now taking the frees, kept Richie Bennis' men at bay and they couldn't get the deficit to below five points, despite the best efforts of O'Shaughnessy (0-07) and Moran (1-03).
Defensively, Tommy Walsh (0-02), Jackie Tyrrell and substitute John Tennyson - who came on for Hickey - were hugely impressive for Kilkenny as the Cats closed out for a comfortable victory.
GAA President Nickey Brennan presented the Liam McCarthy Cup to the bandaged Shefflin, who proudly accepted the trophy along with an emotional James and Darragh McGarry.
Kilkenny settled quickest and were a point to the good when Shefflin converted a free to register the 350th Championship point of what has been a stunning career.
Larkin added a second point a minute later as Limerick started nervously, failing to find any cohesion and missing a couple of early chances.
Limerick full-back Stephen Lucey had to leave the field to get attention to a bloody chin after appearing to be caught by Brennan's elbow, but referee Diarmuid Kirwan didn't take any action against the Kilkenny man.
O'Shaughnessy and Mike Fitzgerald then squandered good chances before Kilkenny's early dominance was rewarded with a goal of some quality from Brennan.
James (Cha) Fitzpatrick found the elusive Brennan with an accurate cut from the sideline, but he still had plenty to do with his back to goal some 20 yards out. However, he skilfully turned his marker before racing clear and drilling the ball past the helpless Brian Murray.
No sooner had play restarted than Limerick were on the back foot again as Kilkenny claimed possession at midfield and Fitzpatrick sent the ball goalwards.
Shefflin and Lucey challenged gamely for ownership and it was Shefflin, the current RTÉ Sports Personality of the Year, who came out on top, catching the sliotar with his back to goal.
Shefflin used all his strength and guile to fend off the attentions of the defender, create some space, throw the ball up and tap the sliotar beyond Limerick 'keeper Brian Murray on the line to give the holders a commanding eight point lead with just ten minutes on the clock.
Larkin quickly tagged on another well-worked point off the right upright to stretch their lead to 2-03 to 0-00 before O'Shaughnessy eventually opened the scoring for Limerick with a free from the right in the 13th minute.
Two minutes later, midfielder Donal O'Grady hit Limerick's first point from play before half-forward Sean O'Connor slotted over another point from distance and Limerick began to assert themselves at midfield.
Brennan and Moran exchanged scores as the game began to settle down, but Kilkenny continued to more than match their opponents in battle, in wits and in scores.
Further points from Moran and Larkin saw Kilkenny maintain their two goal advantage, before full-back Noel Hickey's day was brought to a premature end when he had to limp off with a hamstring injury in the 23rd minute.
However, this Kilkenny squad boasts huge strength in depth and Cody was fortunate to have a man of John Tennyson's calibre waiting in the wings.
A re-shuffling of the pack saw Brian Hogan move from centre-back to full-back on Brian Begley, with Tennyson assuming his position at centre half-back.
And Tennyson showed no signs of rustiness as he immediately gathered possession in the middle third before launching an ambitious ball forward.
Brennan latched onto it and looked certain to score his second goal of the afternoon before a stunningly brave block from Seamus Hickey forced his effort over the bar for the solitary point.
Shefflin then slotted another one between the posts before the largely ineffective Willie O'Dwyer was beckoned to the bench and replaced by Richie Power in the 27th minute. Mike Fitzgerald and Larkin then swapped scores with Kilkenny now leading by 2-08 to 0-06.
Tommy Walsh was then harshly penalised as he tried to escape some uncompromising Limerick tackling near to his own 20 metre line, and O'Shaughnessy converted the resulting free to reduce the lead to seven points.
Moran tagged on another excellent point from the right as Limerick battled to keep themselves in the game, but despite their gallant efforts, Kilkenny always seemed to have enough about them to respond at the other end.
This time Shefflin used his experience and strength to shoulder Hickey to the ground before setting up Brennan for his fourth score of an enterprising first half.
Brian Geary was responsible for Limerick's fifth wide of the opening half when he failed to find his range with a free from the middle of the park on 35 minutes, but Tommy Walsh made no mistake from similar distance with an exceptional point from play that brought first half proceedings to a close.
However, the final action of the half also saw captain Shefflin go to ground clutching his leg in pain, and the Ballyhale Shamrocks man joined Hickey on the bench for the second half with suspected cruciate ligament damage.
The loss of such an influential and inspirational player would have tested the resolve of any team, but this is a special Kilkenny squad and his absence was hardly noticed despite a bright opening by the Treatymen.
O'Shaughnessy knocked over a free and half-time substitute Niall Moran, on for O'Brien, heralded his arrival with a magnificent point to reduce Kilkenny's lead to six points.
Power assumed much of the scoring mantle in the absence of Shefflin, and he slotted over three frees to give his side a nine point advantage by the 47th minute, 2-13 to 0-10.
Limerick refused to give up the fight, and Moran pulled a goal back for the Munster men when he capitalised on a high ball into Begley that had the Kilkenny defence at sixes and sevens.
Moran found himself unmarked with only the 'keeper to beat and he kept his nerve to bring Kilkenny back to within two scores.
Three-time All Star Walsh responded with typical purpose to score his second point from the right to dampen any thoughts Limerick may have had of a comeback.
Try as they might, Limerick just couldn't reel the Cats in, and O'Shaughnessy's fourth free of the day was quickly cancelled out by Cha Fitzpatrick and last year's All-Ireland final Man of the Match Aidan Fogarty, who was otherwise relatively subdued throughout.
Midfielder Donal O'Grady knocked over another point for Limerick before JJ Delaney denied O'Shaughnessy a certain goal on the line after the Limerick forward opted to strike for goal rather than point after from a close range free.
On another day that might have gone in and we would have been bracing ourselves for a gripping finale, but as it turned out O'Shaughnessy missed the resulting '65 and with it any chance of a dramatic comeback realistically died.
That was in the 55th minute, and with O'Shaughnessy converting a free two minutes later, Limerick heroically refused to give up hope. And their efforts were almost rewarded ten minutes from time when Jackie Tyrell came to Kilkenny's rescue, sliding across the face of PJ Ryan's goal to save from O'Shaughnessy's kicked effort after the Kilmallock man had lost his hurl.
O'Shaughnessy converted the '45 that followed to bring Limerick back to within five points, 2-16 to 1-14, but that was as close as they came to relieving the Cats of their crown.
Points from Derek Lyng and Brennan (two) and another converted free from O'Shaughnessy were the game's only remaining scores as Kilkenny closed out for another famous victory at HQ, thus equalling Cork's record of 30 All-Ireland victories.
It was a heart-breaking end to what has been a roller-coaster summer for Limerick, who have been full value on their surprising march to the All-Ireland final.
Richie Bennis and co can take heart from their amazing performances against Tipperary and Waterford, and should not be too despondent after losing to what is a truly great Kilkenny team. Their time could come.
Five titles in seven years surely marks this group of players out as one of the game's most remarkable teams, and their victory today was a fitting climax to a difficult summer which has seen the county (and beyond) devastated by the tragic accident in which goalkeeper McGarry lost his wife Vanessa.
The squad has shown remarkable strength and character to remain focussed despite this, and Shefflin's confident and emotional address to the huddled masses typified the unity within the camp.
Kilkenny, All-Ireland champions of 2007, we salute you!
Kilkenny: PJ Ryan; M Kavanagh, N Hickey, J Tyrrell; T Walsh (0-02), B Hogan, JJ Delaney; D Lyng, J Fitzpatrick (0-01); E Brennan (1-04), H Shefflin (1-02, 1 feee), E Larkin (0-05); W O’Dwyer, M Comerford, A Fogarty (0-01).
Subs: J Tennyson for N Hickey (23), R Power (0-04, 3 frees) for W O’Dwyer (27), M Fennelly for H Sheflin (h-t).
Limerick: B Murray; D Reale, S Lucey, S Hickey, P Lawlor, B Geary, M Foley, D O’Grady (0-02), M O’Brien, M Fitzgerald (0-01), O Moran (1-03), S O’Connor (0-01), A O’Shaugnessy (0-07, 6 frees, 1 ’65), B Begley, D Ryan.
Subs: N Moran (0-02) for M O’Brien (h-t), J O’Brien for S O’Connor (44), P Tobin for S Fitzgerald (49), K Tobin for D Ryan (58), P Lawlor for M O’Riordan (68).
Referee: Diarmuid Kirwan (Cork).