MANY Kilkenny followers who went to Croke Park for the recent Leinster senior hurling final had some doubts as to the wellbeing of the team.
It is a long time since that was the case, as Kilkenny have dominated the provincial hurling scene for many years, bar a blip some seasons ago.
This year’s final was a new experience for the players also as they were well aware of public opinion which reckoned that a close final was in the offering. In many ways that was the making of the team.
True, Kilkenny were favourites, but questioning the team’s prospects was always going to bring out the best in every player. Dublin’s track record over Kilkenny this year could not be ignored, but the return of a number of injured stars made Kilkenny more formidable opponents on this occasion.
It was unfortunate for Dublin that they had to contest the provincial final without three first-choice players, while the returning Joey Boland was way off the pace following his recent injury. The Dubs needed a full hand against a team of Kilkenny’s calibre and the loss of those players was sorely felt.
Kilkenny were always going to put in a fiercely committed performance against Dublin, but even the most ardent followers of the Cats must have been hugely impressed with the determination of the side right from the opening moment of the game.
No-one displayed that determination more than the returning Henry Shefflin. His infectious enthusiasm was replicated throughout the team and Dublin did not know what hit them in the opening ten minutes.
By that stage Kilkenny had lain down a clear marker and mentally Dublin were rattled, particularly after the two first half goals from Eoin Larkin and Colin Fennelly.
Tactically Dublin were all at sea. The defence was prised open far too easily and some of the tacking was pretty feeble - I could never see a Kilkenny defence allowing forwards as clear a run on goal as that enjoyed by Eoin Larkin and Colin Fennelly.
The Dubs were also in big trouble at midfield where Michael Fennelly, in particular, was continually on the ball. With the exception of Conal Keaney the Dublin attack is not particularly imposing. Against a team of Kilkenny’s stature it needed lots of momentum around the wide expanses of Croke Park.
It must be acknowledged that the Dublin attack got little quality ball, but the players were far too static, a tactic that suited Kilkenny. Dublin’s attacking style is best suited to constant movement among the six attackers. There was only ever going to be one winner once Dublin stuck to a rigid attacking option.
The meteoric rise of Colin Herity, Paul Murphy, Paddy Hogan and Colin Fennelly has been a huge bonus for Kilkenny in this year’s championship. All four were terrific and their performances can rightly be said to be at ‘All-Star’ level.
The real bonus for Kilkenny, though, against the Dubs was the imprint left on the final by Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh. Shefflin’s well documented second cruciate injury would have finished a lesser player, but not the Ballyhale star.
He was able to witness at first hand Kilkenny’s League final demise and the subsequent pessimism (however small) which materialised around the county. Shefflin is the spiritual leader of this Kilkenny side and he demonstrated this so admirably last Sunday week.
Maybe more than anything Shefflin had to prove to himself that he was capable of meeting the rigours of another championship after his tortuous rehabilitation programme. Within five minutes of the throw-in every Kilkenny supporter knew that the ‘King’ was back and in remarkably good fettle.
We may take his free-taking for granted, but its importance should not be understated. Most of all it’s his incredible work rate that makes him the leader of his side, plus his ability to bring out the very best in his attacking colleagues.
Tommy Walsh holds a very special relationship with every Kilkenny supporter and concerns were being expressed at his wellbeing given his double-shoulder injury. He was facing, perhaps, Dublin’s best player in Conal Keaney, last Sunday but somehow you just knew this challenge would bring out the best in the Tullaroan star.
Keaney is an impressive performer when it comes to plucking the ball out of the air and against Tommy Walsh he had the advantage of a few extra inches in height. Once the first ball landed between the two players and Walsh emerged with the sliotar safety secured, one knew who was going to win that particular battle.
Kilkenny’s success owed much to the overall team effort which never waned from the opening moments. The spirit and commitment in the side was as strong as ever and the expected stiff challenge from Dublin had the Cats in the right frame of mind.
Kilkenny are back in an All-Ireland semi-final having steam-rolled their two Leinster opponents along the way. The two performances were superb and the attitude of the players was exceptional. But, caution is urged as Kilkenny can expect to face far stiffer opposition in August.
We don’t know yet who Kilkenny will play in their All-Ireland semi-final, but for now we can speculate. If Galway (v Waterford) and Dublin (v Limerick) win their respective quarter-finals, then Kilkenny will play Galway, but depending on results our opponents could also be Limerick or Waterford.
And what of Dublin? The team lost its way early on against Kilkenny; on the sideline and out on the pitch. It appeared as if the occasion may have got to the players and mentors, but they surely must have expected Kilkenny to be fiercely competitive.
It has been a very good year for Dublin hurling, but they really need to win their upcoming quarter-final to show that real progress has been made in 2011. A county’s hurling credentials are ultimately measured by its championship performances.
Provided Anthony Daly can get his team to refocus for the challenge ahead, Dublin is well capable of going one step further than last year. That would be real progress for the Dubs!