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Thursday 8 December 2016

Cody's status quo as Kilkenny as strong as ever

No ifs or buts as Kilkenny press on

TJ Reid in action
TJ Reid in action
Kilkenny team celebrate

THE more things change, the more they stay the same. Galway folk came to Croke Park yesterday hoping, against hope, that the free-scoring portents against Dublin and Laois pointed to a possible toppling of the Black-and-Amber behemoth.

But then Kilkenny did what Brian Cody teams have been doing for years. Gradually, inexorably, remorselessly, they squeezed the last vestiges of life from those Galway dreams. Cue a 70th Leinster SHC title for the Cats, and a 14th on the watch of the all-seeing seer with the baseball cap.

This was no cakewalk, anything but. It was full-blooded championship hurling with flashes of individual genius (none more pronounced than Joe Canning's remarkable goal) but plenty of forced errors and unforced wides.

Ultimately, though, Kilkenny had too much forward class at one end and too much defensive nous at the other.

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When Cyril Donnellan - one of the few rays of forward positivity for Galway - landed his third point from play, a superb touchline effort, the game was in its 62nd minute and the gap down to a retrievable three points, 1-20 to 2-14.

But instead of prompting a grandstand finish, it merely instigated a clinical riposte from two of Kilkenny's leading performers, both last year, this season and again yesterday: TJ Reid caught the puckout and popped a pass for Richie Hogan to hit his fourth point.

From there on, they would land four of the last five points as the fizz went out of Galway's challenge. Trailing by six with less than two minutes of stoppage time remaining, Niall Healy went for goal with a half-chance but flashed it wide.

Then, under the shadow of the Hogan Stand, the evergreen Eoin Larkin showcased his sublime touch to kill the ball on his hurl before arcing over a sumptuous point. Seven up, game over, and onto another All-Ireland semi-final in five weeks' time, on August 9.

Meanwhile, for Galway, a quarter-final looms on July 26 - "D-Day", according to Anthony Cunningham, who put a defiantly positive spin on their championship prospects. Looking on, it was hard to quite share his optimism: Galway's application couldn't be faulted but they don't quite look a Liam MacCarthy project-in-the-making.

It wasn't that Kilkenny hit harder, but their tackling was more sustained and this eventually forced a critical mass of turnovers by harassed men in maroon. Iarla Tannian hurled a mountain of ball but, such was the relentless pressure, quite a lot of his rushed clearances ended up in a Kilkenny paw.

He wasn't the only one guilty on that score. Jason Flynn was barely on the pitch when he blocked down Jackie Tyrrell after 27 minutes.

But then Flynn misplaced his pass and, a few seconds later, Ger Aylward was haring towards goal. The back-tracking Dáithí Burke got a stick to Aylward's attempted reverse pass, only to unwittingly divert it into Reid's path; he duly rounded Colm Callanan for a goal that left Kilkenny seven clear.

By then Reid had already tallied five points, three from play, as he led Kilkenny's counter-charge against Galway's initial feisty resistance.

But, perhaps stung by that concession, Galway threw off the shackles. David Burke's piledriver from an acute angle and Fergal Moore's monster effort cut the gap to five; then Canning took the breath away on 32 minutes as he gathered Andy Smith's long delivery and, in one pirouetting movement, buried his shot beyond Eoin Murphy.

At half-time it was 1-11 to 1-8, game in the melting pot. Seventy seconds later, another Smith clearance unhinged the Kilkenny full-back line, Flynn racing into space and then outfoxing Murphy with a stunning near-post finish.

READ MORE: 'We're very, very close to the Cats' says Cunningham

That was as good as it got for Galway. Hogan's switch to midfield had a pivotal impact on proceedings. Reid added another four frees to bring his tally to 1-9, adding three second half assists for good measure, while Cillian Buckley mopped up imperiously at the back, strangely afforded a free role late on even as Galway chased in vain.

The challengers never nosed ahead, and maybe it would have been different if David Burke's 48th minute goal chance (when trailing by one) had struck the jackpot.

Ifs, buts, maybes ... words you seldom associate with Kilkenny.

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