HERE we are blessed with a prolonged blast of reasonable weather as we head into the closing stages of April and into the first of the knock-out hurling of season 2012 that is already shaping up to be hugely promising.
Such has been the unseasonable nature of the weather since the start of the Allianz National Hurling League that on occasion we could be forgiven for thinking that the ‘real season’ had already begun.
Of course it hasn’t, but the quality of some of the fare, plus the mixed up bag of results that has been thrown up by the League to date, has posed hurling gazers more than a few things to ponder as they look down the long road towards September.
But we are where we are now, as they say, and Kilkenny, not unexpectedly it has to be said, are bang in the middle of the serious action.
That same action will attracted possibly the crowd of the season to Semple Stadium on Sunday when the Cats face the only unbeaten team around, Clare, in one Allianz Hurling League semi-final (2pm) while in the second semi beaten All-Ireland finalists of last season, Tipperary will pit their wits against resurgent Cork (4pm).
On paper at least, the ingredients are there for a mighty afternoon of hurling. If the current nice spell of weather continues, paper promise could transfer into reality as the four highly charged sides’ battle for two places in the final, which will be played on May 6. And who knows, that final might be in Kilkenny’s own Nowlan Park, if the Cats qualify for it.
Stand out quality
Manager Davy Fitzgerald has that stand out quality about him in that he attracts huge media attention, and this season his new team, his beloved Clare, have been something of a stand out side themselves as they put a six match unbeaten run together.
That was in Division 1B. After two disappointing campaigns during which they failed to win promotion to the top flight, the Banner County did in under the shrewd and passionate leadership of Fitzgerald, and now they are hoping to press on.
For Clare this semi-final has opportunity written all over it. They are the Division 1B champions, an honour won by darting back from an eight point second half deficit to defeat Limerick in the final recently (0-21 to 1-16).
Clare, Fitzgerald and his fellow selectors, Mike Deegan and Louis Mulqueen, have an opportunity to take stock, to measure their team against the current All-Ireland champions to see where they stand in the hurling order of things. The Division 1B title is a nice honour, but it would be a mere trinket by comparison with what would be available in the Munster championship.
Clare struggled at times in midfield against Limerick, but the likes of Conor McGrath, John Conlon, James McInerney, Domhnaill O’Donovan, goalie Patrick Kelly and Patrick O’Connor have enjoyed nothing but good times since the season commenced. There is a nice mood about the Clare camp these times, and the Fitzgerald charm appears to be a hugely positive force for them.
The Banner men ran up impressive scores along the League road, including 2-24 against Limerick on their first day out, 2-22 and then 3-16 in the defeat of Wexford so they are doing a lot of things right, it would appear.
The manager will, no doubt, encourage the players to let rip against Kilkenny. They can do so without fear, because many see Kilkenny as a bridge too far just now for an emerging team like Clare.
Kilkenny, it could be argued, won Division 1A in that they topped their group, but the outright League honours go to the county who stacks up the results up to and including that May 6 deadline.
Blast off day
While the Cats will chase the title with zest and determination, the hallmark of all teams turned out by manager Brian Cody and fellow selectors, Michael Dempsey and Martin Fogarty, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the chase didn’t end in victory. Just remember last May, and the League final defeat against Dublin!
On the next big hurling day that followed that defeat, down in Wexford Park in June against Wexford in the championship, a far different, near fire eating Kilkenny emerged. The Slaneysiders were scorched as the Cats set their sights on September and Croke Park.
The start of the championship in Portlaois in nine weeks time will be akin to that visit to Wexford Park – it will be blast off day. Meanwhile, the Noresides have no intention of applying the brakes in the League. And why should they? They are moving well, playing with a power in their game that few others appear capable of matching at the moment.
This has been a good League to date for Kilkenny – the squad has been utilised down as far as the 24th man during a neatly package squad rotation process and the County Board has made a bit of money – and there is every reason to think the run can continue.
The guys like Paul Murphy, David Herity and Colin Fennelly who more or less broke into the team last season have kicked on smartly and they continue to expand the boundaries of their game. All have progressed to the point where they would be considered first teamers now, if such a thing existed in Kilkenny.
Seeing what those guys achieved, and continue to achieve, must be an inspiration to the likes of Matt Ruth, Kieran Joyce, Richie Doyle, Cillian Buckley, Paddy Hogan, Willie Phelan and so on who got the opportunity to dip their toe in the League waters during the campaign. All did well, and made decent progress.
No one over exposed
The infusion of new blood is a must do process in terms of looking at the bigger, long term picture. The Kilkenny officials haven’t over exposed anyone, in terms of throwing them in at the deep end, which is part of the trick of bringing players along nice and slowly.
Right now the Kilkenny squad, apart altogether from what might be classed as the first team, appears to be in fine fettle.
Richie Hogan, who received a bad rib and lung injury against Galway in the last match, and long time absentee Henry Shefflin will miss the rest or the campaign, no matter how long it runs, it appears.
In a sort of book balancing exercise, the free scoring Richie Power, who was suspended for the Galway game, and Jackie Tyrrell, who injured an ankle against Dublin, could be available for selection on Sunday. A number of players were nursing various kinds of injuries over the weekend, but management were hopeful that all would be fit for action.
Kilkenny bring a lot of physical power, hurling, determination and lots more to the table. Tipperary and Galway got a blast of both barrels in the stand out performances to date. Why?
In the first instance Kilkenny just didn’t want to lose. In the second, they had to win!
On days and in situations like that the Cats can destroy!
Clare have made steady progress under Davy Fitzgerald, but it is hard to see them having travelled enough of the learning road yet to cope with the might of Eoin Larkin and his fellow troopers.
PS - Tickets for the Allianz Hurling League Roinn 1A semi-finals will be on sale in Nowlan Park this evening (Wednesday) from 7.30 to 9pm. There will be no ticket sales in Nowlan Park during the day. Tickets can also be bought from Super Valu, Loughboy, the Centra, Mooncoin and Super Valu, Ballyragget.