Kerry will contest the Joe McDonagh Cup final as a curtain-raiser to the All-Ireland SHC final on 12 December after they did the necessary in beating Carlow in Tralee.
In what Kerry manager Fintan O'Connor had earlier in the week termed a championship semi-final, both teams needed to win to book their place in hurling’s second-tier championship finale, where Kerry are now almost certain to play Antrim in that Croke Park showdown next month.
There is a remote chance that Carlow could usurp Antrim – who play Meath next weekend – to set up a re-match with Kerry in the final, but it would need a highly unlikely set of results in the final round of games next week for that to happen.
It was high drama in Austin Stack Park until the last moments of 74 minutes of tense action, which ended with Michael O'Leary booming over two points late in additional time to seal victory for Kerry.
The Kingdom had taken a five-point lead, 2-12 to 1-10, into half time thanks to two goals from centre-forward Daniel Collins, but Carlow rallied well into the second half to close the deficit and then lead by two as the game enter the final 10 minutes.
Kerry were boosted by the availability of defender Fionan Mackessy who had a red card from the previous weekend’s loss to Antrim overturned on appeal, and the home side took an early 0-04 to 0-02 lead. Then, after just six minutes, Carlow’s Jon Nolan showed great awareness and skill to slap home a goal to give the Leinster men the lead.
Kerry were hit with the loss of goalkeeper Martin Stackpoole in the 14th minute with a hand injury, and though Carlow led 1-06 to 0-06 at the water break, the Kingdom were back on terms just after the re-start when Mikey Boyle and Maurice O’Connor combined well to set up Collins for a 19th minute goal.
Martin Kavanagh – who finished with 11 converted frees – kept Carlow in touch from placed balls, with Shane Conway, Maurice O’Connor and Boyle landing smart scores for Kerry.
All things considered Kerry would have been pleased to take a 1-12 to 1-10 lead to the interval but with the last play of the half, in the 37th minute, Shane Nolan burst through on a solo run, and when his shot was parried by Brian Tracey, Collins was on hand to flick the ball past the Carlow 'keeper to give Kerry that five-point lead. They needed every bit of it.
The third quarter was scrappy, with more wides than scores, as Kerry led 2-15 to 1-15 at the second water break.
Carlow rallied strongly thereafter, and with Kavanagh nailing his frees and Chris Nolan and Diarmuid Byrne landing crucial scores, the visitors edged into the lead and looked like they might hang on.
But Kerry had one last kick in them, and with O’Leary finding the space and composure, the big Abbeydorney man pointed Kerry to a rare Croke Park final next month.
Kerry: Martin Stackpoole, John Buckley, Tomás O’Connor, Eric Leen, Michael Leane (0-02), Jason Diggins, Fionan Mackessy, Paudie O’Connor, Shane Nolan (0-01), Brandon Barrett (0-01), Daniel Collins (2-01), Michael O’Leary (0-03), Shane Conway (0-08, 0-03f, 0-01’65’), Mikey Boyle (0-04), Maurice O’Connor (0-02).
Subs used: John B O’Halloran for M Stackpoole (14), Padraig Boyle for B Barrett (48), Colm Harty for M O’Connor (60), Sean Weir for J Buckley (63), Brendan O’Leary for P O’Connor (74).
Carlow: Brian Tracey, Michael Doyle, Paul Doyle, Gary Bennett, Ger Coady, David English, Richard Coady, Jack Kavanagh (0-01), Aaron Amond, Diarmuid Byrne (0-01), Jon Nolan (1-01), Edward Byrne (0-01), Martin Kavanagh (0-11, 0-11f), Kevin McDonald (0-02), Chris Nolan (0-05).
Subs used: James Doyle (0-01) for R Coady (52), Ted Joyce for A Amond (58), Ross Smithers for J Kavanagh (65), Paul Coady for G Coady (70).
Referee: Colm McAllister (Cork).