THE FIRST leg of a potential All-Ireland final treble could be secured on Saturday as the Kilkenny intermediates try to scupper Galway’s hopes of a clean sweep.
In what will be a busy week for county teams, Pat O’Grady’s charges will be the first looking to book an All-Ireland final berth when they travel to Tullamore to tackle the Tribesmen on Saturday (throw-in 2pm).
“It’s a big incentive to be one step away from an All-Ireland final,” the manager said. “We have played a few challenge matches since winning the Leinster final; with every game you see the focus of the players steadily growing.
“Now we’re one step away from an All-Ireland final. When Kilkenny teams get to that stage you see them step up a gear or two.”
Kilkenny secured the provincial spoils back in June, but O’Grady has some enforced changes to deal with.
Shane Norton (Emeralds) and Pat Hartley (Tullogher-Rosbercon), who both impressed in the Leinster final win over Wexford, have left the country on student Summer visas. Midfielder Joe Lyng (Rower-Inistioge) is also expected to miss the game having suffered a shoulder injury during training.
Despite the losses, O’Grady feels it is a chance for others to step up to the plate.
“It’s been a while since the Leinster final, but players have been chomping at the bit in training since then,” he said. “We’ll have to make a few changes for the Galway game, but this will give other players the opportunity to stand up and stake a claim for a starting place. I’ve no doubt that whoever comes in will be up to the job.”
The absence of the trio has been eased with the introduction of Bill Beckett (St Lachtain’s) and Michael Malone (Mullinavat) to the squad. That, coupled with the impressive form of more players, leaves the Kilkenny manager in a confident mood heading into the game.
“Players like Niall Doherty (Galmoy) and Rory Hickey (Lisdowney) have been in great form for their clubs,” he said. “Combined with the performances of our under-21 players like Ger Aylward (Glenmore), Jason Corcoran (John Lockes) and Brian Kennedy (St Lachtain’s) we have assembled a good unit together.”
O’Grady knows the Cats will have to be at their best to see off Galway, whose hurlers are riding on the crest of a wave at present. The seniors booked their place in the All-Ireland last Sunday. As well as the intermediates, the minors and under-21s are also involved in the title shake-up.
“Galway are on a high at the minute,” he said. “They are still in all competitions and are chasing the holy grail of a clean sweep. That could be a help to their intermediates, but it could also hinder them.”
The Tribesmen aren’t helped by the fact they have no championship games behind them. Even with senior boss Anthony Cunningham overlooking the set-up - the intermediates have been used as a development squad for the senior ranks - and Portumna boss Johnny Kelly training a team which includes former senior star Niall Healy, they will be going in cold against Kilkenny, something O’Grady feels will favour his side.
“Galway haven’t had a game in the championship this year,” he said. “Even though it’s a while ago since we played Wexford, after 20 minutes of that game we knew where we were with this team. We got into a good rhythm and intensity that day, something which will hopefully stand to us.”
And, the backing of a large black and amber crowd could see them edge closer to the final.
Hopefully we’ll get good support at the game,” he said. “I know a lot of people will be going to Dublin for the senior semi-final, but they might take a detour via Tullamore on Saturday - we’ll give them a good weekend!”