Henry Shefflin made a dramatic return as Kilkenny beat bitter rivals Tipperary by 0-20 to 1-14 in a riveting All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship qualifier at a packed Nowlan Park this evening.
A crowd of 23,307 descended on the city venue for a rip-roaring encounter between two hurling heavyweights sent through the back door following shock provincial championship defeats.
And it was a quite remarkable game as All-Ireland champions Kilkenny pulled off a sensational win.
The Cats lined out without inspriational midfielder Michael Fennelly, but Shefflin came off the bench with five minutes remaining and set up a late score for Richie Power.
The sides were level at half-time – 1-06 to 0-09 – as 2010 Hurler of the Year Lar Corbett struck for Tipp’s goal.
But the Thurles Sarsfields attacker was forced off with a hamstring injury before half-time and Kilkenny, who will meet Waterford next weekend, were inspired in the second half.
Kilkenny made three changes before throw-in as Paul Murphy, Matthew Ruth and TJ Reid replaced Conor Fogarty, Michael Rice and Aidan Fogarty.
But Reid succumbed to a hamstring injury in the first half as a patched-up Kilkenny squad was stretched to the limit once again.
Murphy, who made a remarkable recovery from an ankle injury, was absolutely superb at corner back although Corbett did make some early inroads, scoring the goal and winning two frees converted by Eoin Kelly.
But it was the return of Shefflin that provided one of the main talking points from a memorabe occasion.
It was a wonderful cameo from the nine-time All-Ireland medallist as Kilkenny’s fans were energised by his appearance on the field.
It was another psychological masterstroke from manager Brian Cody and a tide of emotion swept Kilkenny over the line.
Tipp were hampered by a crippling inability to win primary possession in their forward line in the second half.
The ball was coming back at the Tipperary defence just as quickly as it went out and Kilkenny sensed that their neighbours were there for the taking.
But Tipp were in a good position in the first half as Corbett’s goal put them 1-04 to 0-03 in front in the 15th minute.
And they were four clear again - 1-05 to 0-04 - when John O’Dwyer flashed over a 23rd minute point to mark his first Championship start in style.
But that was the cue for Kilkenny to respond with five points without reply and at the break the sides were level at 1-06 to 0-09.
Tipp opened the second half in encouraging fashion but a critical turning point arrived when Kelly’s goal chance was blocked away by Kilkenny defender JJ Delaney.
From the 65 that followed, Kelly shot wide and it compounded earlier wides from Seamus Callanan and Kelly.
Callanan was the man called in to replace Corbett and he scored two points but Tipp had also suffered a pre-match injury setback when full-back Paul Curran was ruled out with a hamstring injury.
Kilkenny’s leading scorer Eoin Larkin – who hit ten of his eleven points from frees – tied the game at 0-11 to 1-08 before Richie Hogan and O’Dwyer exchanged points.
That tied the scores for the seventh time but once Kilkenny hit the front through Larkin’s 50th minute free, they would not look back.
Tipp sub Jason Forde threatened to bag a Tipp goal in the 53rd minute but he was crowded out by a ferociously hungry Kilkenny defence.
Kilkenny responded in kind through Ruth – one of three players introduced before throw-in – but he saw his fierce drive well saved by Tipp goalkeeper Brendan Cummins.
Scorers for Kilkenny: E Larkin 0-11 (10f), R Hogan & W Walsh 0-03 each, R Power 0-02, C Fennelly 0-01.
Scorers for Tipperary: E Kelly 0-05 (4f, 1 65), L Corbett 1-00, J O’Dwyer 0-03, S Callanan 0-02, N McGrath, J O’Brien, J Woodlock & K Bergin 0-01 each.
Kilkenny: E Murphy; P Murphy, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, K Joyce; L Ryan, E Larkin; C Fennelly, R Power, M Ruth; TJ Reid, W Walsh, R Hogan.
Subs: G Aylward for Reid (21), A Fogarty for Aylward (53), H Shefflin for Ruth (65).
Tipperary: B Cummins; C O’Brien, P Stapleton, M Cahill; B Maher, C O’Mahony, Pádraic Maher; J Woodlock, S McGrath; Patrick Maher, N McGrath, J O’Brien; J O’Dwyer, E Kelly, L Corbett.
Subs: S Callanan for Corbett (inj, 29), K Bergin for S McGrath (h.t.), J Forde for Patrick Maher (52), G Ryan for J O’Brien (54), B O’Meara for Kelly (64).
Referee: Brian Gavin (Offaly)