THE Kilkenny National Hurling League bandwagon will head into the West on Sunday when the Cats travel to Pearse Stadium to take on champions, Galway in the fourth series of matches.
The Noresiders travel with nothing but victory on their mind as they edge closer and closer to a place in the League final.
“The final is where we want to be,” insisted manager Brian Cody again at the weekend after Kilkenny scored a handy enough win over Wexford, who are still looking for their first point in the competiton and who look like facing a battle against the drop.
At the same time Galway were losing to Cork by 1-17 to 1-20. Now they face a battle to hold on to their title, and a second reverse on Sunday could all but finish their reign as League champions.
“If we lose to Kilkenny the prospects of getting to the final would be remote,” admitted Galway boss, John McIntyre, who has seen his squad decimated by injuries.
Long term casualties include Joe Canning, Damien Hayes, Aidan Harte and Kevin Hynes, while Joseph Cooney, Eanna Ryan and Ger Farragher are all doubtful for the Kilkenny game after picking up knocks at the weekend.
“This is a high stakes match for us,” Mr McIntyre added. “Our early big wins over Offaly and Wexford may have given a misleading impression of where we are. We played well against Cork but we paid the price for missing chances.”
Right now Kilkenny and Dublin head the Division I league table with maximum points from three matches. There are four rounds left to be played, and anything might happen, but the two teams at the top at the finish contest the final.
It is generally accepted that the margin for error is one defeat for those hoping to get through to the final. On that score the League, in terms of winning it, would appear to be over for Wexford, Offaly and Tipperary (see attached table).
All the rest have some hope. However, Galway are one of three sides who have suffered one defeat, so they will be fighting for their lives on Sunday.
If Kilkenny can better the Connacht side, and they are determined to do so, then they can add another name to the list of also rans.
If they lose, however, the pressure will be on them with matches against Waterford (Nowlan Park, March 27), Dublin (Croke Park, April 2) and Offaly (Nowlan Park, April 17) to come.
“This is a terrific test for us,” Mr Cody said of Sunday’s contest. “If we can win we would be in a strong position. That is what you want at this time of year; you want this sort of match with something meaningful at stake.
“We are looking forward to the challenge. It will be interesting to see how we cope with the challenge. Galway are a big team, one of the biggest in the Leinster championship.”
Indeed, the way things are shaping up, with Dublin showing strongly in the League, the forthcoming Leinster championship could be a sizzler of a competition. That is for another day, however.
Kilkenny will continue to mix and match with their team as they use the League to test players for the Summer events. Defender J.J. Delaney, who had the red card he received against Cork recently resinded, and John Mulhall, who were nursing knocks, will be added to the squad for the trip West.
Mr Cody said he was pleased with the way things were going. Kilkenny were cominbing a tough training regime with League games, while continuing to enjoy good results. There was little more they could hope for so early in the season.
The form of players chasing first team places was really warming up, with the likes of P.J. Delaney, Paul Murphy, Richie Hogan and Colin Fennelly really pushing themselves into the frame.