All agree there is some championship ahead, but Tipp and Kilkenny are the favourites

KILKENNY People columnist, Barrie Henriques organised a discussion on the upcoming inter-county senior hurling championship. He got together four people whose acclaim as hurling players and knowledge of the game was beyond question.

KILKENNY People columnist, Barrie Henriques organised a discussion on the upcoming inter-county senior hurling championship. He got together four people whose acclaim as hurling players and knowledge of the game was beyond question.

They discussed the up-coming championship, with the core element of Kilkenny hurling prominently under the spotlight. Joe Hennessy (JH), Noel Skehan (NS), Brendan Fennelly (BF) and Nickey Brennan (NB) made up the panel. Barrie prompted and then let the discussion run.

BH: Some ne’re say wells will say that the championship has all the marks of a mediocre competition, Joe?

JH: The Championship offers a lot every year, and I don’t think for a second that this year’s one will be any different than the 2010 one. We all starting off on level terms. I think that we could have a rattling good competition. Look, we are all only guessing at this stage. Some will be right, others wrong, but my tuppence worth is that we could have a great championship.

BH: For the last number of years we had a few marquee teams, whom we felt would be contenders. We could even narrow it down to a possible three, with a probable two. Is it any different this year, Noel?

NS: It will most definitely be different this year in Leinster, and whilst the same teams will figure in Munster again, it will still be a lottery working out who will eventually emerge winners. Tipp are the raging certainties in Munster but even they might come unstuck down there.

BH: Analyse the Leinster scenario?

NS: I think that the Leinster championship will be a thundering great competition. I feel that it will be much more competitive than the Munster championship. Leinster looks a very appetising prospect, with plenty of tough games in the mix.

BH: You have already started with Laois going down to Antrim. That was always going to be a close call Brendan Fennelly, given what Antrim had done to Dublin last year?

BF: There was never going to be much in the game. We had a narrow win over them in Belfast in the League, but I wasn’t foolish enough to think that that would matter in the long run. Dinny Cahill had done great work up there and the likes of Sambo McNaughton and his team have been working for years trying to improve the standards in Antrim. But we (Laois) have not gone away despite the setback against Antrim. We go into the first round open draw route, and we will have five Leinster teams in the hat with either Cork or Tipp, so there is a huge amount of good hurling coming up over the horizon.

In addition to the losers of Cork/Tipp, we will have the losers of Dublin/Offaly, Kilkenny/Wexford and the losers of Westmeath/Carlow and Galway. Yeh! There is a mighty lot of hurling to be played in Leinster yet.

BH: Brendan feels that there could be a six-team menu from which one could make a more than reasonable case for their chances of getting to Croke Park on the first Sunday in September. Would you concur Nickey?

NB: I wouldn’t entirely agree with the half dozen figure, but it will not be far away. I agree with Noel that Leinster this year will be far more competitive than it has ever been. And Munster looks intimidating too. With Kerry an absentee, the other five, on any given day, will churn up a storm, and God knows what the outcome might eventually be. With the strides of Dublin, the inclusion of Galway, and I wouldn’t even dare write off the prospects of Offaly or Wexford, I feel that we will have a great hurling time in the east.

BH: It surprises me Joe that the people who nearly always get it right -the bookies - have Kilkenny lying in third spot on the form book. Are you surprised?

JH: I am a little, because we are AI runners-up. We ran up in the National League final, but I always think about Kilkenny that if we strike form on the day, it will take a helluva team to beat them. I know we have a bit of a gathering up to do after the League final, but if we get the boys back in good form, we’ll talk to any of them. You can bet your life on that.

BH: Can we gather it up Noel as Joe hopes?

NS: Let’s look at the League run for a start. We were up and down. Against Cork in the first half we were very good. Against Wexford in the first half we were very good. We had a good second half against Tipp in Thurles. I was in Dublin for the last League game, and I thought we were very lucky not to be 2-3 down after six minutes. We led Dublin by four points with six minutes remaining, but Dublin got three final points to share the game.

They also missed five or six points in the same period. What worries me about our lads is that we are conceding big scores, and while we are also getting some big scores, the concessions are too big for my comfort. Additionally, I don’t think we hurled the full nine yards in any of our games. Think back to the 18-point turn around in Salthill, and you will see what I am alluding to. I full realise that we have been short some great defenders through injury, and lack of fitness, and if they come back fit, it will be a big bonus, but there are no guarantees about the fitness levels of all of the injured players.

BH: Being the only member of the panel who would have first-hand knowledge of Limerick and Clare, Brendan have they a sporting chance of causing an upset?

BF: Limerick couldn’t have done any more than win all their Leagus games and get out of Division II. They did so with a little to spare. Clare lost twice to Limerick and ourselves (Laois). Given the minefield that the championship often times is, they have some hope, but no more than that. Limerick face Waterford in one semi-final and Clare get the winners of Cork and Tipp in the other. I honestly cannot give either a realistic chance of upsetting any of their opponents.

BH: As deserved League champions, talk to us about Dublin, Nickey.

NB: The big asset for Dublin has been the addition of Conal Keaney and Ryan O’Dwyer. They have given a steely edge to the attack, an element that has not been prevalent. But now is different for the Dublin hurlers. As League champions, they will find themselves in the favourites role.

It will be interesting to observe how they will carry that burden. In their first game against Offaly, they will be forced to line out without Joey Boland, Tomás Brady and, of course, Stephen Hiney, three first-call defenders. I feel that the new Dublin Achilles heel is their defence, and that fear is exacerbated by the loss of such marquee defenders. That makes Dublin vulnerable.

They have a good team. Anthony Daly has done tremendous good for Dublin hurling, but he would not have bought into the League win hype. While I have great time for the Dubs, I wouldn’t rush into putting good money on them for further titles just yet. I look no further than the Offaly game.

BH: We keep on saying that it is good for the game Dublin winning, Joe?

JH: I was talking down town with a Dublin man, and he was telling me that the amount of young lads in Dublin going round with hurleys in their hands was amazing. Yes, it is great for the game. But it won’t be easy against Offaly. I feel that Offaly are on the up and up, even though they dropped down to Division II.

But they are always hard to beat in the championship. They very nearly nailed Galway last year in Portlaoise. Personally, I would give Offaly a squeak, and I have a little fancy for them.

BH: I read last week that Ryan O’Dwyer is using a graphite handled hurley Noel. Have you seen or used it?

NS: I’ve seen it. I was thinking back to the Wavin hurley years ago and the sting that would paralyse you if you didn’t connect on the sweet spot. I feel the same about this.

BH: It would be very expensive to repair one?

JH: (laughing) Ah they have plenty of money in the Dublin County Board.

NS: Listening to Nickey and Joey there, I would have to say that Dublin have improved immensely. I would also say that Anthony Daly is no fool. I happened to listen to him after the League final. He said it was brilliant to win the final, but he also admitted that they had made a lot of mistakes. And when Anthony Daly says such things, you know that he has his feet well set on the ground and he won’t be doing anything quare or stupid.

He’ll batten down his lads with a dose of realism. They will find it very hard to beat Offaly, but I think they will come out ahead at the final whistle.

BH: Let’s get back to Kilkenny, Brendan. Third favourites on the Bookies Boards. Some are ignoring them in favour of Tipp and Galway. Are they wise?

BF: They can’t be wise or right to think the way they are. If anybody beats Kilkenny they will win the Leinster final. Subsequently, if anybody beats Kilkenny on the run to the All-Ireland they will be crowned All-Ireland Champions.

Kilkenny will play Wexford down in Wexford Park, and that will be a tricky little match for them. Wexford will be on a high after the League campaign, and it is my view that outside of the Dublin achievement, the most amazing achievement after that was the job done by Wexford to come from where they were with two games to go to survival in Division I.

Being very practical about Kilkenny; they are already in a Leinster semi-final. Three games gets them to an All-Ireland Final. For the likes of Dublin to win Leinster they have to beat Offaly, more than likely they will beat Galway, and then either Kilkenny or Wexford. I don’t see them doing that. I still see a Kilkenny/Galway Leinster final.

They are in a good place, and I am well aware that they have some difficulties, but if problems are solved with injuries, I revert to my opening statement. Kilkenny and Tipp are undoubtedly the two big guns again this year, and anyone who thinks differently are out by the side of it.

BH: Brendan mentioned Wexford as a tricky call, Nicky. Given that Wexford teams are many times a Jekyl and Hyde establishment, and given their tendency to be more Jekyl than Hyde, can they put on the cloak of decency of Hyde to nail Kilkenny?

NB: Brian Cody will not underestimate for a single second the challenge that is in this Wexford game. We don’t know what Wexford are doing presently, but it will be a greasy pole for our lads down there. Wexford will not lack for motivation at home. If they hit the front, they will be very difficult to peg back. Tricky certainly, but I feel that we will come home happy.

BH: Your opinion, Joey?

JH: Wexford were never simple, but if we get our lads back in reasonable shape, we’ll give them a game, and when we get to our home ground in Croke Park we’ll give a good account of ourselves. There is nothing like a Leinster final in Croke Park to get us going.

I would have to say that Michael Fennelly is vital to our cause this season. He is a huge player for us. His enthusiasm is infectious. His work rate is phenomenal. He is now one of our leaders. If he’s right we will be OK. We won’t be too far off it.

BH: You have recently seen Waterford, Noel?

NS: I have not seen Waterford play hurling like they did against Tipp a couple of weeks ago in Holycross. They beat Tipp who were not one bit pleased. Everyone is talking Tipp down Munster way, but I can tell you that Waterford will not easily be put down. Davy (Fitzgerald) has fired in a nice balance of young lads and the older fellows, and I feel that he will do great things. Waterford will give this championship a shake before its all over.

BH: You would be more familiar with the Waterford psyche Brendan after your terrific exploits with De La Salle. Tell us about Waterford’s chances firstly, and then tell me about John Mullane.

BF: Davy is doing a great job down there, but it’s not only Davy. A great amount of good work has been going on down there for a good number of years. The standard of club hurling is very competitive and very good.

As I said earlier there are five or six teams for whom you could make a case and you would have to include Waterford as Noel said in that mix. We are going down to play their under-21 team next week, and there are 10 of their under-21 team on the senior panel.

They could win the Munster championship again, but going all the way, I am not so sure. But I for one wouldn’t write them off. They won’t have an easy battle against Limerick in the semi-final, but I still see them winning.

BH: Back to Mullane, Brendan. What kind of a guy is he?

BF: He is a great guy really. I found him very honest both on and off the field. He is a serious talker about hurling, and about all other sports too. He has matured into a real leader of men, and he has made great strides since his late teens.

I remember him telling me when first I went to De La Salle that what made him was going to America with the All Stars, and meeting up with some fantastic people from Kilkenny, Cork, Tipperary, Galway and Wexford. Then he made up his mind that he wanted what they had, and realising that the only way to get it was by pure hard work and dedication.

In the past five years he has been among the five best hurlers in the country, up there with the very best.

BH: You’d have him on your team?

BF: He would be the first man I would pencil in. He’s a great man for the big occasion. When the big day comes you will always turn to the good hurler, and invariably the big hurler will oblige. Kilkenny have Henry, Eddie Brennan, Richie Power. Tipp have Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett. Cork have the O’Connors’, Gardiner and Curren. Galway had the Cannings’. And John is in the same mould, a man who will produce when needed.

BH: You have crossed swords with Denis Walsh recently, Brendan. How would you rate Cork’s chances?

BF: Cork are relishing the challenge of Tipp in Thurles next weekend. Even moderate Cork hurlers grow in stature at the thoughts of playing Tipp in Thurles. They hammered them last year, and while I feel that they might not repeat the size of the victory, I give them a good chance, thus forcing Tipp to go through the back door like they did last year.

They fancy themselves coming up to Thurles next weekend. They were the last team to beat Tipperary in the championship. They have no fear of their short game breaking down as they have perfected it. But what I would worry about is if Tipp made it impossible on them to work the short game, they don’t seem to have a Plan B. Its going to be a great opener to the championship.

BH: You still fancy Tipp, irrespective, Nickey?

NB: I would still fancy Tipp. Even though they have had a management change, I feel that it was painless and smooth with Tommy Dunne and Declan Ryan. Often when you have a new management team in, the best year is the first one, but while it is Dunne’s and Ryan’s first year, it is second year for the team.

They have lost only one from last year’s panel, and a couple of smart lads have been unearthed through the League. I take what the lads have said about Waterford, and I acknowledge the work that Davy Fitzgerald has done in blending in some of the younger bucks. Davy and his team have made a quicker step back onto centre stage than they might otherwise have expected, but I still fancy Tipperary. Cork are Cork, and nobody would be foolish enough to underestimate them, but I think that they are a little behind some of the rest.

BH: You would have Mullane, Joe?

JH: No doubt. I would always have a great hurler in my team. He is the best Waterford hurler I have ever seen.

BH: We have not spoken about the Galway lads. They are seldom Cinderella. Known as the one- in -a -row team west of the big river. Analyse them for me Joe?

JH: They have to be always respected. They will take a lot of beating. I think their problem is always about conceding scores. They can get them in abundance, but boys do they give them away. I think that Ollie Canning could have held on for one more year, and that could have been the difference.

NS: They still will not be a push over for anyone this year. I’m of the opinion that they are getting more consistent.

BH: Some Galway supporters will agree, and say that they are getting consistently bad.

NS: No, no, no. I think that they will meet our lads in the Leinster final, and if they beat our lads, I guarantee you that they will then be very difficult to beat. Be wary is what I say.

BF: I wonder how seriously they took the League this year. They won it last year and it didn’t help in a sense other than giving them medals. Don’t forget that they had Tipp beaten last year in the semi-final but for a bad stroke on Ollie Canning.

Tipp were reeling until that incident. Noel was saying that he hoped that Ollie Canning would stay for another year. I felt that if he had stayed on the field against Tipp for another four minutes, Tipp would not have won the All-Ireland.

NB: I feel Galway will win the Leinster title this year, and I feel that they will go all the way to the final against Tipp. I wouldn’t bet against Galway.

BH: Second last question gentlemen. Who will win the provincial titles?

JH: Kilkenny and Tipperary.

NS: Kilkenny and Tipp, but I will not be surprised if Waterford make it in Munster.

BF: Kilkenny and Tipperary, but I would not be doing a double or even backing them in single bets.

NB: Galway and Tipp.

BH: All Ireland champions?

JH: Kilkenny.

NS: Kilkenny.

BF: With a clear run with injuries, Kilkenny will be the team they will all have to beat.

NB: Tipperary.