THE new hurling season won’t just swing into action this weekend it will explode with a cracker of a National League match between All-Ireland finalists of 2010, Tipperary and Kilkenny kicking off proceedings.
The match of the round will be played under lights in Thurles on Saturday, which will kick start a super weekend of games for Kilkenny fans with two club All-Ireland finals involving Dicksboro (intermediate) and Callan’s John Lockes (junior) in Croke Park the following day.
And to underline the very healthy state of club hurling in the county at the moment, O’Loughlin/Gaels, the newly crowned Leinster champions, are also in training at the moment for an All-Ireland semi-final, in their case against Loughgiel Shamrocks (Antrim) on Saturday week in Parnell Park.
There could be no better way to start the Allianz League than by staging a re-run of the All-Ireland 2010 final, which was a fabulous match between two Titans who, on the evidence of the exquisite fare in Croke Park that September afternoon, have moved a distance ahead of all other contenders.
Of course, every new season brings new hope and expectations with it and there will be other counties – have absolutely no doubt about that - who will fancy their chances of bringing down the ‘Big Two’ in the pursuit of ’League and/or McCarthy Cup honours.
Weather a spoilsport
Hopefully the weather won’t prove a spoilsport for the fixture like it did last season when two dates were wiped out because of heavy falls of snow before it was eventually played at the third attempt in Semple Stadium.
Kilkenny’s subsequent games in the League are against Cork (at home on February 20) and Waterford (at home on March 6) so a good result on Saturday could set up the county for a nice run.
“The ’League is a competition we want to do very, very well in if at all possible,” was the way Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody spelled out the Cats approach to the first big competition of 2011.
The Walsh Cup final against Dublin fell foul of the weather at the weekend, but that didn’t unduly upsets the Noresiders approach to things. That game would have been a good warm-up clash before the Tipp tie, but the start of the ’League has been what Kilkenny have been looking forward to since the fixtures programme was decided.
“From a supporters and interest point of view the re-run of the All-Ireland final is a great way to start the ’League,” the Kilkenny boss added. “But we will approach the ’League overall in the same serious way we always have.
“This is a great start. It is something to really look forward to.”
Mr Cody, who is starting into his 13th season in the hot seat, insisted that there would be no relaxation in Kilkenny’s drive to win every match and every honour that was out there.
“We are mad for action,” he assured when we spoke at the launch of Glanbia’s continued sponsorship of Kilkenny teams. “This time of year is great. We are training. Things are going well. The mood is good. There are big matches coming up. It is a great.”
Thing of the past
The disappointment after the failed attempt to win the never before achieved All-Ireland five in-a-row was very much a thing of the past.
“I was never into all that,” he said of the five in-a-row talk and all such things. “The whole thing was never about that at all. It was always about hurling and what you can do tomorrow. It was never about the past.”
Does the defeat in the All-Ireland final, the absence of talk about trying to put one win on top of another, lessen the pressure then?
“Things don’t change as far as Kilkenny are concerned,” the James Stephens man continued. “I am looking forward to the challenges of the new season. What is behind is gone, over and done with.
“The ambition is the same for sure, absolutely, and that is to go out and do the very, very best we can. We will see where that brings us.”
There has been a fair bit of coming and going in and around the camp, with long servers like Derek Lyng and James Ryall exiting as players, while Noel Richardson and Robbie Lodge departed the backroom team. New faces like Colin McGrath, Paul Murphy, Matthew Ruth and Michael Murphy have come into the squad.
The panel will remain open ended, apparently, and certainly so until the O’Loughlin/Gaels contingent are able to join in after their adventure in the All-Ireland club championship.
Mr Cody said he and fellow selectors, Michael Dempsey and Martin Fogarty, didn’t make too many changes to the squad. The players’ holiday was earlier than usual, but there was no great significance attached to that either.
“Fellows want to get back into action,” he assured. “Things are going well. Training has been good. The players are in good shape. That is a compliment to the players. They came back in good shape, which is a testament to their commitment.”
No Shefflin, Tennyson or Power
Kilkenny will run into the new season without Henry Shefflin and John Tennyson, who are recovering following surgery to repair severed cruciate ligaments, while Richie Power is recovery after surgery on his hip. The Carrickshock man may be back in action next month, but the other pair will miss the entire ’League campaign.
“The ambition doesn’t change as far as we are concerned,” Brian Cody said. “The enjoyment of the thing doesn’t change. What the players want from the game doesn’t change. We will carry on as Kilkenny do, wanting to be winners.”
Tipperary have experienced considerable change since the All-Ireland final. Manager Liam Sheedy stepped down after a hugely successful stint during which he steered the county to National League, Munster and All-Ireland championship honours.
The new man in charge is Declan Ryan, who as manager of under-age teams in the county in the past worked with most of the players in the current squad.
Tipp will be without team captain Eoin Kelly, who is getting married this weekend. Otherwise they should be close to full strength for what promises to be rip-roaring contest.