Praise youth and it will develop. That motto was echoed by a Kilkenny veteran as he spoke of how the younger hurlers have helped recharge the Cats this year.
“The more competition that is there for places, the better the squad is going to perform,” was the feeling of J.J Delaney as he spoke in the build-up to Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final.
“Training gets you ready for matches, and if you’re getting a handy run there then you’re not prepared.
“This year, of all years, we’re getting tested every night of the week in training,” he added.
“In a squad everyone to a man knows they can make the starting 15. That’s a massive thing to have in any squad as no-one goes in giving their all without believing they can make the side. Everyone has a fair chance of starting.”
The injection of youth into Kilkenny’s ranks has brought a renewed intensity into the side, something the Fenians (Johnstown) man could only see as a positive in the build-up to the crunch game with Limerick.
“They’re gathering experience all the time,” he said of his younger colleagues. “The League was good as they were able to get a lot of games under their belts but championship hurling is what you want to play and it’s the same for them.
“They want to be starting when it comes to the semi-final, so they’ll be putting in a tremendous effort in the build-up to that game along with everyone else.”
And, like the players who are there now, the youngsters have a little ruthless ambition about themselves.
“They have brought a great freshness to the squad,” he said. “When we were younger we wanted to be in the team - you didn’t care if you were taking the spot of a guy who had been there 10 or 15 years! These lads have the same mentality too, which is great for the squad.”
Hunger for titles
The hunger for titles is as great as ever, especially for a side who missed out on provincial and national success in 2013. Having a five-week break that goes with a Leinster crown was merely a bonus, but the medal mattered most of all.
“At the start of the year we wanted to win the Leinster final,” said Delaney, outlining one of Kilkenny’s goals. “A few of the lads on the panel didn’t have that provincial medal, so that’s a huge thing for them - you’ll always remember your first win.
“The motivation was there in another way as it gave us a route to the All-Ireland semi-final, meaning we could sit back and let everyone else knock each other out. You’re trying to stay away from the qualifiers as much as you can because the game are coming at you week after week. With that you get injuries on top of injuries, then mental and physical fatigue comes in on top.
“We were in that situation last year,” he added. “The way the championship went we didn’t even make the semi-final, so we’re just looking forward to the challenge of Limerick. Hopefully we have a bit of freshness coming into Sunday’s game.”
That freshness will be tested by a Limerick side who stormed into the final four on the back of a big win over Wexford. Kilkenny will provide a different, sterner test, but Delaney was quick to acknowledge the challenge Limerick will bring to the table.
“Limerick were very impressive against Wexford,” he said of Sunday’s opposition. “They looked very professional in the way they went about getting the win.
“They have a serious set of backs, while their half-forward line is very quick,” he added. “We’re expecting a huge game out of them.”
While much has been made of Kilkenny’s big game experience, Delaney believes it won’t matter as much as some people reckon.
“I don’t think experience will come into play against Limerick,” he said. “Whichever side performs over the 70 minutes will get over the line.
“Limerick might have felt they let themselves down a little last year (in the All-Ireland semi-final). They’ll want to rectify that, but that’s the big challenge ahead of them.
Making amends for previous defeats is something every side goes through. Even though he has eight senior All-Ireland medals, Delaney could identify with how Limerick were keen to atone for their Munster final loss to Cork.
“When you lose a game you want to play another as quickly as possible - if you could play it the next day you would. You want to get yourself back in the swing of things and rectify what has gone wrong.
“Defeat does bring you back down to earth a little bit,” he said. “It’s a case of knowing you’ve no God-given right to win a competition; you have to go out and earn it. Looking back on last year we didn’t earn it, which is why we were dumped out of the championship. This year we had to learn from that. You don’t look back too often, but you have to learn from what’s happened too.”
So while experience might not be a key factor, hunger to be there on the biggest day in the hurling calendar is something else altogether.
“No-one ever really remembers the team who loses All-Ireland semi-finals,” said Delaney. “It’s all about getting to Croke Park in September.
“There’s no cup handed out in August, but winning gives you a fair chance of getting one. It’s a huge thing for us to knuckle down and get everything in order.”