KILKENNY ARE BACK in the All-Ireland final for the 63rd time in their history.

Brian Cody celebrates at the final whistle.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It’s a remarkable achievement considering how far down the pecking order they began the summer. They weren’t considered among the main contenders for the big prize, partly down to the injuries they’d suffered in the early part of the year. 

At the outset of their championship campaign, the Cats were down a plethora of players.

Cillian Buckley, James Maher, Conor Delaney, Rob Lennon and Eoin Murphy were sidelined with long-term injuries, while Walter Walsh and Alan Murphy soon joined them on the treatment table. 

Then there were the concerns surrounding Richie Hogan’s fitness due to a persistent back issue. With such an experienced core sidelined, there were serious question marks over the ability of Kilkenny’s young guns to step up.

And when they dethroned champions Limerick last night at Croke Park, the likes of Huw Lawlor, Conor Browne and Adrian Mullen stepped up with major roles in the victory.

“Everybody talks about the injuries, but we don’t talk about the injuries,” Cody insisted back in May.

It was the most Brian Cody of answers and yesterday’s defeat of Limerick was similarly Cody-esque. For all the skill of this Kilkenny team, it’s their ability to extract the absolute maximum out of themselves that sets them apart. 

They unleashed hell on Limerick from the off with a level of tackling and aggression that was the hallmarks of all the great black and amber teams that have gone before them. 

Padraig Walsh had a huge game at centre-back.

Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Cody typically refused to take any credit for the heart his players showed on the field.

“Look, it’s either in a fella or it’s not,” he said. “You can’t send out fellas there that you know in your heart and soul are never going to be able to do that.

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“The basic thing is you go out with total honesty first of all. You can talk about all the other things you like, essentially they’re in the county panel first of all because they’re well able to hurl, they’re good hurlers, they have plenty of skill and all the rest of it.

“And then it’s the application they bring and the honesty they bring and the sense of team they bring. Limerick are living proof of that with the way they won the All-Ireland final last year and they oozed it.

“I said it at the start of the year I had huge confidence in the panel of players we had. I know we had injuries but I continued to say I had huge confidence in our players. I still have because they’re very, very honest.”

Honesty, heart, application – all buzzwords of the Cody era.

“We keep our feet on the ground,” he continued. “The only thing we’d ever like to think is that we’ll go out and we’ll work very, very hard.

“We’ve got nothing on any other team in the country and we have to at all times work very, very hard to stay competitive. That’s our ambition every time we go out.

“The prize is huge – getting to the All-Ireland final. Obviously we knew the opposition was serious, All-Ireland champions, outstanding champions.

“We came up here to be competitive, to give ourselves a chance and we were obviously competitive but we had to keep it going, grind it out and to finish ahead at the final whistle is massively satisfying.”

As they often do, Kilkenny attacked Limerick’s strengths.

TJ Reid soaks up the win.

Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Declan Hannon was replaced at half-time through injury, while Gearoid Hegarty and Tom Morrissey were subbed off in the final quarter. All three were so critical to their All-Ireland success.

The Kilkenny half-forwards dropped deep on Nickie Quaid’s puck-outs and they allowed the keeper go short with his restarts.

On their third outing in less 27 days, Kilkenny were first to the breaking ball around the middle third. TJ Reid was doing so much damage in the opening half that Limerick briefly dropped Kyle Hayes back to null his threat.

“Hurling is now so fluid and so much tactics involved in it, it’s challenging for everybody,” he added.

Ballyhale men Reid and Colin Fennelly contributed handsomely to the scoreboard with 1-11 between them.

“It was unbelievable work-rate from all the players,” gushed Reid. “They’re All-Ireland champions, if you don’t out-work them, they’re going to beat you on the scoreboard and that’s what we done.

“We didn’t probably score as much as we would have liked to, but it was just the doggedness, the work-rate, the hooks, the blocks, the flicks, the catches.

“Today it was just pure savage work-rate from all the players, subs, everyone. It was a massive effort.

“We knew it was going to be a massive battle and it was, it went down to the final whistle.”

It might have been the youngsters stepping up to the mark that most pleased their manager. 

“They have settled in very well,” Cody said of his younger cohort. “It’s a big ask.

“It’s about your character but it’s also about your ability to bring yourself to the field and play the game.

“And have the nerve to do it. The nerve is hugely important. Your head dictates so much about what happens out there and the lads are doing that very well.

“Were they pushed and challenged massively, and were they taking on outstanding players? In a big way. The three lads (Lawlor, Browne and Mullen) had huge jobs to do and huge competition to face but they took it on manfully.

Gearoid Hegarty tackles Adrian Mullen.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Every single player on the field and everybody who came in contributed so much. And everybody who didn’t get a chance to come in, and the rest of the fellas we have on the training panel, it’a huge effort.”

Cody felt the penalty Lawlor conceded was “a tough call” but praised the full-back for his overall display. 

“He’s an intelligent fella, he’s a sound fella, his feet were totally on the ground. He is completely a team player and every day he goes out, you know you’re getting absolutely everything that is in him.

“If things go against him, he won’t drop his head, he’ll keep going. You can’t ask for much more.”

For the 11th time in succession under Cody, Kilkenny have safely negotiated an All-Ireland semi-final. They’ll face the winners of tomorrow’s meeting between Tipperary and Wexford. 

Cody is asked who he would rather face in the final.

“Would I rather play Tipp or Wexford in a final? I’d be very happy to play Tipp or Wexford in a final because I know we’re going to!

“It’ll be very easy to be in Croke Park tomorrow to watch that game. That’s a lovely day always when you know you’re in it.

“It will be massively difficult to win the final. But you certainly couldn’t win if you weren’t in it. And we have a chance when we’re in it.”

Reid was similarly excited to seal a return to the final, an occasion he hasn’t experienced in three years.

“We missed this so much, the last time we were here was 2016,” he said.

“For me, the panel of players and management of Kilkenny we are back in an All-Ireland final now in three weeks’ time and we can’t wait.”

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