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Saturday 25 November 2017

Dubs find hope in defeat

Kilkenny 2-20 Dublin 1-16
Gary Maguire receives a straight red card during the game against Kilkenny at Parnell Park.
Photo: Sportsfile
Gary Maguire receives a straight red card during the game against Kilkenny at Parnell Park. Photo: Sportsfile

Ger Cunningham has got plenty of practice, this spring, extricating positives from the remnants of defeat.

But in fairness to the Dublin hurling manager, there was no shame in suffering a third consecutive home loss - this time to Kilkenny.

The eventual seven-point margin fails to tell the full story of this battle for Allianz League Division 1A survival.

Dublin now face a relegation play-off against Clare next weekend. They lost, narrowly, to the Banner a fortnight ago but will derive hope from this week's return of their eight-strong Cuala contingent - and from how they performed in their absence one last time.

Their manager was particularly taken with how 14 Dubs fought like tigers in the wake of Gary Maguire's 31st-minute red card. "Very proud of the lads and the character they showed in the second half and for taking the game to Kilkenny," Cunningham enthused.

Sceptics will argue that you can't sugar-coat a seven-point defeat. Optimists will counter that, even if Dublin succumb to Clare, their defiance here offers cautious grounds for summer optimism.

Cunningham, for his part, reasoned that "outside of the first match against Tipp" they have been competitive in all four other games, three losses included.

"We showed that we have to use the ball better," he added. "We used the ball well in the second half. Kilkenny are a big physical side. It was some of our guys' first time playing against Kilkenny at senior level, so we are where we are."

They certainly looked more at home in the claustrophobic confines of Parnell Park than they tend to be in Croke Park, where they had flopped against Tipperary and fallen away after a promising first half against Waterford.

True, Kilkenny were several notches below the benchmark set in their epic stalemate with Tipp ... but Dublin refused to make life easy, even after falling behind to Conor Martin's eighth-minute goal.

The score was engineered by Colin Fennelly's rapier run and pinpoint cross, leaving Martin with a tap-in. The Emeralds clubman would finish with 1-5 in brackets after his name - proof that Kilkenny can still unearth attacking diamonds even while some naysayers are foretelling Black-and-Amber Armageddon.

"He's a very good hurler, always was. That's going to be good for his confidence obviously," noted Brian Cody in the closest you'll get to gushing post-match acclamation.

Still, his goal failed to suppress Dublin's spirit. They landed seven of the next nine points and when Chris Crummey landed a monster score from the left touchline, the Dublin wing-back had actually edged ahead (2-1) in his point-from-play duel with TJ Reid and his team led by 0-9 to 1-3.

Double-whammy

Cue a double-whammy disaster for Dublin - and more especially Maguire.

Martin, Reid and Walter Walsh were all involved in the defence-shredding move that ended with Liam Blanchfield scoring Kilkenny's second goal even as Maguire tried (and singularly failed) to halt his progress with a wild pull.

There were no post-match calls to free the 'Boden One.

"I don't think we'll crib with it really," Cunningham conceded. "He went out to tackle him and I'd like to see it again, but my first observations on it was that he could have been in trouble."

Referee Paud O'Dwyer agreed, and 14 Dubs looked in peril when facing a 2-5 to 0-10 deficit at the change of ends.

Would they sink or swim? As it transpired, after leaking a rapid brace to Blanchfield and Fennelly to fall three adrift, they battled like men possessed for the next 20 minutes.

Donal Burke kickstarted the fightback with a 37th-minute goal, pouncing on a rebound after Ryan O'Dwyer's twisting run and shot. It was a profitable afternoon for Burke, whose 1-9 haul included 1-2 from play and a more assured return from placed balls.

But the real stars for Dublin were further back: Shane Barrett and Liam Rushe were heroic during that third quarter while Crummey brought his haul to 0-3 in a standout head-to-head with Reid, whose 0-10 included four from play.

Briefly, thanks to Burke, Dublin led after 42 minutes; they were still just a goal adrift beyond the hour.

Inevitably, as Cunningham conceded, "the extra man was going to tell" and Dublin physically flagged ... but Cody, for one, was suitably impressed.

"I never considered them to be that far off," the Kilkenny boss stressed. "We all saw Cuala play and we know the quality of a number of players they have to bring back. That's going to make them real serious contenders for whatever is out there."

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