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My favourite game: 'Dotsy' leads charge as Dublin's hurlers work way up to top billing

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Kilkenny’s Tommy Walsh tussles with Conal Keaney during their drawn 2013 Leinster semi-final

Kilkenny’s Tommy Walsh tussles with Conal Keaney during their drawn 2013 Leinster semi-final

SPORTSFILE

Kilkenny’s Tommy Walsh tussles with Conal Keaney during their drawn 2013 Leinster semi-final

Unsure exactly what to make of the first half of the drawn 2013 Leinster SHC semi-final between Dublin and Kilkenny, we wandered down from the press box in O'Moore Park and had the good fortune to bump into Dave Billings. Just the man!

They say if you live long enough, you'll see everything. Billings, through a near pathological devotion to Dublin, St Vincent's and UCD, had witnessed most of it already.

If anyone could decipher the true meaning of the first half, a period in which Dublin and Kilkenny each scored eight points but neither produced anything like their best, it was Billings.

"This is on," he advised, wide-eyed.

"I wouldn't have thought that you'd see it in your lifetime, never mind me seeing it in my lifetime," he added, referring to the outcome everyone milling around us in the stand in O'Moore was now beginning to contemplate for the first time.

"But it's on here. It's there for them."

And off he scuttled.

Billings passed away less than two years later, still a relatively young man.

But you couldn't give the sort of Trojan devotion to the GAA he had without being able to recognise a team slightly off-colour.

Vulnerable

Kilkenny wore a shade of pale in that first half that at best made them look vulnerable. And at worst, ailing.

Henry Shefflin and Michael Fennelly were in Portlaoise only as injured onlookers.

In a scrappy half, powered by a palpably desperate energy, Dublin had edged them in the air and in the physical collisions, traditionally Kilkenny's domains.

With some more polish up front, Anthony Daly's team could have smuggled a lead into half-time.

Dublin had enjoyed victories over hurling's aristocrats in the league and had threatened during the Clare man's colourful and regenerative tenure to pull off a coup de grace of similar magnitude in the championship.

But this was Kilkenny.

All-Ireland champions for the previous two Septembers. In pursuit of another three-in-a-row.

Seventy-one years had passed since Dublin last beat Kilkenny in championship hurling and despite the weight of Billings' premonition, we were condemned to wait at least another week.

TJ Reid equalised from a free in injury-time, an ending that deflated the small but intensely committed band of Dublin hurling aficionados, all of whom left Portlaoise certain that the old rule of GAA replays would be strictly adhered to: the team that were supposed to win the first day would win the replay.

By the following Saturday, the mood had lightened.

When they arrived back to Portlaoise six days later, optimism wasn't in short supply because for Dublin hurling supporters, what else was there?

That the early moments were almost all Dublin's immediately igniting the fixture with the same blaze of possibility that fuelled the draw.

Dotsy O'Callaghan illuminated the first half, all sharp touches and jinking changes of direction.

It was fitting that O'Callaghan became synonymous with such a landmark day.

For all the brawn and pace cultivated by Daly in Dublin's defence, the energy and balance of their midfield, and the abrasiveness of their half-forward line, Dotsy's wizardry in possession was spellbinding.

He scored four points before Brian Cody took corrective action, the same distance Kilkenny trailed by at half-time.

The inevitability of their comeback was met with stoic rebuttal by Michael Carton, Liam Rushe, Stephen Hiney and Peter Kelly, who exerted a controlled physical dominance at the back.

Blunted, Kilkenny scored only five points from play and when Danny Sutcliffe arrived with Swiss timing to send home the game's only goal, Dublin collectively threw back their shoulders.

At the final whistle, O'Callaghan and Daly embraced.

Others were hoisted and feted to the strains of 'Come On You Boys in Blue'.

Just a week later, they beat Galway in Croke Park by 12 points, a magical display that dwarfed the previous week's for quality and, most importantly, captured a first Leinster title for Dublin in 52 years.

But the significance of beating the Kilkenny team of that era, particularly after a replay, made it arguably the greater achievement.

That Dublin team had their off years; seasons when injury hit hard or when expectation sat uncomfortably beside them or when they simply couldn't find their gallop.

But for where they had come from, for what they won, and in this case, for who they beat along the way, Daly's time in Dublin is rightly regarded as a success story.

Those aficionados still recall the era with a deep affection.

And that afternoon in O'Moore Park was surely their finest day together.