The Kilkenny players and fans are sharing an agonising journey during what has been transformed into an intriguing hurling championship. Neither wants to, or can, let go.
The hurlers, despite the enormous odds against them, are hanging on in a gripping pursuit of the MacCarthy Cup. And despite all the victories enjoyed over the last decade and more, the supporters would dearly love to see one more title landed.
“It is all engrossing stuff,” suggested former star defender and RTE commentator, John Henderson, who is one of the biggest fans of the current “great team”. The winner of senior All-Irelands in 1979, 1982 on the full-back line with Brian Cody, and again in 1983 felt the Cats were as good as what were left in the championship and anything was possible.
“It is fun listening to supporters,” John said with amusement. “Before the Tipp match they were talking about a big test, but….Then it was if we can beat Waterford. No more than the players, they can’t let go, and if this teams gets to the final again the dream will go on. No one wants to let go.”
He compared Kilkenny’s protracted journey to date to the Dublin/Meath football saga in Leinster in the early nineties during a really warm summer. Meath kept overcoming the odds and sneaking draws. Eventually the demands told against them and they were beaten.
“I just wonder will that be the fate of our team this season,” John wondered. “I hope not. Kilkenny are using what they have to the best of their ability. Different people are rising to the challenge at different times.
“They are doing enough to get through all the time without being brilliant. You only have to be ahead at the end, I suppose, and Kilkenny are doing that.”
He was hugely impressed the way the Cats picked themselves up off the ground after the defeat by Dublin in Portlaois to beat Tipperary the following week.
“There wouldn’t have been too many teams who would have been able to respond in the manner they did to win that high pressure game,” he felt. “The fact the opposition was provided by Tipp inspired Kilkenny. Having the game in Nowlan Park was a huge help too.
“If Michael Rice and T.J. Reid can get their game going, they could be key men. We are recycling the same few forwards, and that is a bit of a worry. There is no new fellows coming in. A lot of things have to go right for us for things to be right, but the players are getting there.
“Cork are a very interesting proposition. Cork are Cork no matter when or where you play them. The more damaged they are, and the more vulnerable people think they are, the more dangerous they are. Against Clare they scored a lot of points from all over the place and showed they are capable of anything on their day. They have a good squad. There is something about them, something that would have my senses on alert.
“Cork will lift their game against Kilkenny. I would be hoping that Kilkenny can just come out and have another good rattle at it. What is left in the championship is all beatable.
“This championship could go any way. Kilkenny are good enough to do it. A lot depends on how many players strike form together. Getting near the end of the competition more will have to play well together to grind out the results.
“Maybe it might be ‘Taggy’ for five minutes. It might be Richie Hogan. Even Matthew Ruth could be a key man. He is getting there. He will eventually crack it and performances will flow. Walter Walsh is another who could be a game changer.
“The selectors don’t have any great choice. They have to keep going back to the same players all the time. The defence has been massive. How J.J., Jackie, Tommy, Brian Hogan keep going is a wonder. Paul Murphy and Kieran Joyce have developed into fine players.
“You just hope they can still produce it. They only have to do it three more times remember. I just don’t know how they keep driving, driving, driving.
“The title is there for anyone, including Kilkenny. The bookies are never too far wrong. The fear of Kilkenny is still out there. All the teams left respect Kilkenny so much it is possibly to their detriment.
“The team that has the least respect for them could do the most damage. That was Dublin’s big thing in their replay victory. But as we all know, Kilkenny are not ready to let go yet, not by a long shot.”