Allianz Hurling League – Division 1b
Antrim 0-15 Kilkenny 1-18
Saturday 4 February
Brendan McTaggart reports from Corrigan Park, Belfast
The one that got away. Antrim took on the might of Kilkenny in a wind swept Corrigan Park on Saturday afternoon and by the final whistle, the overriding emotion is one of regret. This one was there for the taking against the Cats and the look of disappointment on faces as the Saffrons trudged off the Whiterock Road pitch said it all.
Trailing by four at half time with the wind not only increasing in speed but also dramatically changing direction, the hurling Gods looked to have smiled favourably on Darren Gleeson’s men. Antrim had the benefit of playing with the wind in both halves of this Allianz League Division One encounter but they couldn’t take advantage.
In fairness, they came up against a team who were led superbly by Padraig Walsh at the heart of their defence while Huw Lawlor and captain Cillian Buckley also shone. The Cat’s retention of possession and ability to find a man coming off the shoulder was that little bit better than the Saffrons over the 70 minutes and was a major factor in deciding where the league points went to by the full time whistle.
Antrim had their own stand out performers, also in defence. Ryan McGarry excelled on the edge of his own square, especially in the first half while Eoghan Campbell was in the thick of everything in the next line up. Paddy Burke was Antrim’s stand-out performer overall however. Solid defensively and broke the black and amber lines on numerous occasions looking to create chances for an Antrim forward unit that had an immense battle on their hands to get any kind of freedom against a water-tight Kilkenny defence.
Conal Cunning top scored for the Saffrons with 0-8 beside his name, all coming from placed ball while the next best from play was Niall McKenna’s total of two points. League debutant Billy Drennan finished with 1-8 for the Cat’s, seven frees within his total and his accuracy from placed ball despite the troublesome elements always gave Derek Lyng’s men a degree of control.
When analysing this game, Antrim will look at a 15 minute period in the second half when they had the Cat’s rattled. Despite scoring three points, they hit a number of wides and didn’t make the most of their chances. At a time when Kilkenny were struggling with the intensity Antrim were bringing, they were thankful for a number of dubious refereeing decisions that went their way and left the Saffron management seething.
The Cat’s saw off the Saffron storm and acclimatised to the wind and rain as the half progressed with Drennan’s frees pivotal. They scored the last four points of the game to give the scoreboard a deceiving if not flattering outlook in their favour by the time the full time whistle was sounded.
The Saffrons looked nervous in the opening exchanges, despite James McNaughton’s early score. The Loughgiel man showing his class and turn of pace before splitting the uprights. The 2022 All-Ireland finalists go the score board ticking with a long range free taken by ‘keeper Aidan Tallis.
Conal Cunning fired over a brace of frees either side of scores from Padraig Walsh and Paul Cody. The Cat’s were looking dangerous in attack which wasn’t helping the Saffron nerves. Cian Kenny bringing a top drawer save from Ryan Elliott after a loose pass in the Antrim defence. The sliothar was recycled and John Donnelly split the upright to put three between the sides before Kilkenny scored the only goal of the game. Kenny with the assist despite the attentions of the Antrim defence, finding Drennan on the run and in acres of space. He fired low and to the bottom corner to put daylight between the sides.
The goal sparked a response from Antrim as they hit three of the next four points. A pair of frees from Cunning and a great score from Conal Bohill coming with a Drennan free the only response for the visitors.
Paul Cody and Drennan (free) fired over for Kilkenny in quick time before superb points from Neil McManus and Niall McKenna left Drennan’s goal between the sides. Kenny had another look at Elliott’s goal as he intercepted a poor pass in the Antrim defence but with the Antrim goal at his mercy, he fired wide with Walter Walsh firing over soon after to put four between the sides with five minutes of the half remaining.
McKenna and Martin Keoghan swapped scores before the half time whistle to leave Kilkenny ahead 1-10 to 0-9 at the interval.
Antrim made changes at half time with Seaan Elliott and Phelim Duffin coming in for Eoin O’Neill and Niall O’Connor. With the dark clouds hanging low and rain pouring, the wind switched to favour Antrim. An astonishing turnaround, even by Corrigan Park standards and with Antrim trailing by four, they would have fancied their chances of eating into the Kilkenny lead.
Cunning and Drennan swapped frees in a gritty opening that saw both sides struggle with the elements. Another Drennan free put five between the sides but that would be the last Kilkenny score for 12 minutes as Antrim turned the screw. They found another level of intensity in the middle third and kept the pressure on the visiting defence with scores coming from Keelan Molloy, Paddy Burke and a Cunning free. It could and should have been better however such was the wave of attacks and momentum heavily in the Saffrons favour.
The two point deficit was as close as they came to the Cat’s as Kilkenny began to adjust. Drennan (two) and Cunning swapped frees to leave three between the sides going into the last ten minutes of the game.
Cunning’s eighth free of the game came in the 63rd minute but was ultimately Antrim’s last score of the hour. Kilkenny’s better use of the sliothar shone in the closing stages with Martin Keoghan (three) and Drennan all finding the target in the time that remained.
Ultimately it was another reminder of how harsh Division One hurling can be for the Saffrons who could easily have recorded an opening day win. As it is however, they travel to Parnell Park next Sunday and a meeting with the Dubs.
Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Niall O’Connor, Ryan McGarry, Paddy Burke; Gerard Walsh, Eoghan Campbell, Conal Bohill; Joe Maskey, Michael Bradley; Niall McKenna, Keelan Molloy, James McNaughton; Conal Cunning, Neil McManus, Eoin O’Neill
Subs: Phelim Duffin for N O’Connor (HT); Seaan Elliott for E O’Neill (HT); Conor Johnston for J Maskey (43); Paul Boyle for K Molloy (65)
Scorers: C Cunning 0-8 (8fs); N McKenna 0-2; P Burke 0-1; C Bohill 0-1; K Molloy 0-1; J McNaughton 0-1; N McManus 0-1
Kilkenny: Aidan Tallis; Mikey Butler, Huw Lawlor, Niall Powey; Cillian Buckley, Padraig Walsh, David Blanchfield; Paddy Deegan, John Donnelly; Walter Walsh, Cian Kenny, Paul Cody; Billy Drennan, Martin Keoghan, Billy Ryan
Subs: Shane Murphy for P Cody (HT); Tom Phelan for C Kenny (63); Alan Murphy for W Walsh (68)
Scorers: B Drennan 1-8 (7fs); M Keoghan 0-4; P Cody 0-2; A Tallis 0-1 (1f); P Walsh 0-1; J Donnelly 0-1; W Walsh 0-1
Referee: Chris Mooney (Dublin)