IRRESPECTIVE of how they perform in Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling final, Kilkenny will owe a big ‘thank you’ to National League champions Dublin for helping them find their best form this season.
The Dubs gave the Cats a lesson when walloping them by 0-22 to 1-7 in the League final, but the self examination which followed was the makings of Kilkenny.
“Losing the League final gave us a reality check,” suggested all action midfielder, Michael Fennelly when he surveyed the season 2011. “We were getting wins in the League but we were only performing in fits and starts.
“We might play well for 10 or 15 minutes and then die. That wasn’t good. Results made it looked as if we were going okay.”
The results were misleading, even if in one instance the Noresiders suffered a bad defeat against Galway. However, the hammering by Dublin, who ran away from their opponents at the finish, prompted a re-evaluation of attitudes.
“The question was, were Kilkenny going backwards or forwards?” suggested the former All-Ireland winning captain. “Dublin played well throughout the campaign and they finished well. We had to have a good look at ourselves and see where we were going.
“A few weeks later we were due to play Wexford in Wexford Park in the championship. Anything could have happened there.”
The Dublin defeat hurt, and the manner of it shocked.
“We knew we had to up things,” Fennelly continued. “The way results were going make it look like we were doing fine. Lads might have been thinking ‘I am doing enough’. You have to be some way happy if you are winning, which we were.
Defeat a good thing
“The defeat was probably a good thing. The fact it was a good beating helped too. If we had lost by only a few points we might not have been as serious as we were about the new examination.
“Things could have dragged on. We could have got a fright against Wexford then. If we hadn’t been 100% that day we could have been blown off the field because Wexford were close at half-time.”
Fennelly suggested there was such a small thing between success and failure at inter-county level it was frightening. If a squad was not 100% right it could be caught by any number of teams.
“I have seen it in games,” he admitted. “We all saw it in the Waterford/Galway game this year. Everyone had written off Waterford after the Munster final but they turned around and hammered Galway. That can happen. Dublin did us a favour, big time.”
Now the Cats stand on the verge of something great again, possibly, as they face Tipperary, their masters in last year’s All-Ireland final.
“Heading into this final t is very different,” Michael suggested. “It is hard to believe it is All-Ireland time already. Normally we might play the likes of Cork or Galway in the championship. This year we didn’t.
“We played neighbours Wexford, Dublin and Waterford. In ways it has been surreal. We are playing the team we wanted to play in the final. Obviously we were hurt last year. Tipp gave us a bit of a trimming.
“That was hard to take. We are the underdogs going into the final, which is new for us. I don’t think that matters much, though. In Kilkenny we are expected to perform and win All-Ireland titles.
“From last September this is where we wanted to be. Like most people you would like to play last year’s game again. I would love to have played it straight away. You couldn’t.
“There was the waiting game. It has been tough. It has been long. Now we are getting another crack at it.”
When looking back on last year’s All-Ireland final, was there something that cost Kilkenny on the day?
“To be fair, Tipp were the better team,” was his straight forward assessment. “Coming off the field I thought maybe we didn’t perform as well as we could. Looking at the game later I thought we played well and we ran up a good score.
“Looking at it that way is not encouraging,” he laughed.” It could mean they are a good step ahead of us. Tipp were outstanding; their hunger and everything. The goals they got were crucial. We have no complaints about the outcome.
“Maybe they are where we were two or three years ago. They are tops. They have a nice breed of players. They have young good players mixed in with the likes of Eoin Kelly, Brendan Cummins and Lar Corbett, plus Noel McGrath, Padraic Maher and so on.
“They have shown great character, skill and maturity. Their form in last year’s final was as good as you would want. That is a scary thought to see how mature they are, and how any number of them take on leadership roles when needed.”
Always have things to work on
How do you get yourself tuned for contest like this?
Michael said a lot of the preparation was mental. Former Kilkenny great, Willie O’Connor was a great believer that if the mental preparations were right, the body would do the rest.
“A lot has to do with the mental side of things,” the Ballyhale Shamrocks star suggested. “Forget about your last performance. The next game is all that matters. You always have a few things to work on, be it catching the ball, shooting, running and releasing or whatever.
“Every game I go out in I give my opponent maximum respect. My personal job is to get the better of my man. I have to look after my job first. I have to be mentally focussed.
“I cannot be thinking about how others might play. If we are right individually, then the team effort will come together.”
Michael was sure that things were going well for Kilkenny during training. They were ready to dig in the heels and empty the tank in the final.
“We will be tested to the limit, of that he had no doubt,” he felt. “If we are not absolutely 100% we will not win.”
He admitted the pain of losing last year’s final was still there. Finals are there to be won. It was a horrible place when you lose.
“You just want to sink away in a black hole. You don’t want to talk to or meet anyone,” he said.
Players try and put a brave face on things, but the hurt makes it difficult to socialise and communicate with people. He needed time and space to work things through, he admitted.
“You get over it,” added the 27-year-old. “But you bring that hurt with you the next time. We all know that pain could be there again, but we will try our absolute to try and make sure it isn’t. But there is no guarantee.”