SATURDAY was what concerned fans would now describe as your average, unnerving training day for Kilkenny at Nowlan Park.
On what would generally be regarded as the last of the tough sessions, five members of the squad were nursing injuries and were unable to join in the hurling part of the training.
And just to cap things off, team captain, Eoin Larkin, injured an ankle and had to be helped from the field.
The sight of the James Stephens man leaning on the shoulders of two of the backroom staff as he limped down the sideline on the new stand side seemed to mirror Kilkenny’s misfortune just now, and highlight further the challenging position they find themselves in.
“What else can go wrong,” you could almost hear the small number of fans in attendance asking.
A mere seven days before what is expected to be a ferocious collision with physically strong and ever improving Dublin in the Leinster senior hurling championship semi-final in Portlaois, the Cats were still being pounded by the Gods of misery, yet they were utterly defiant.
“It is no secret we have injuries,” was the unequivocal assessment delivered by Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody. “I am not sure exactly about the availability of players yet.
Team and panel hard to predict
“Not only is our team hard to predict, our full panel for the day is hard to predict. That is something we won’t be sure of until after the under-21 match against Wexford on Wednesday (tonight).”
Powerful midfield duo, Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice didn’t play any hurling, and they look almost certain to be spectators in Portlaois.
Cillian Buckley and Richie Hogan did some light jogging, while Richie Power didn’t even tog out after receiving treatment for a knee injury. However, all, including Larkin, should be available for what will be a repeat of last year’s National League final, which Dublin won with shocking ease by 0-22 to 1-7.
The counties have clashed once in recent months. Kilkenny won a thrill a minute National League tie that produced a goal fest at Nowlan Park on March 18 (5-16 to 6-12), albeit with a fair slice of luck and thanks to a late, late goal.
The Cats roared onwards and upwards afterwards and finished up winning the League, taking over as champions from Dublin, who ended up being relegated from the top flight.
On Saturday, Kilkenny will set out on the road chasing what could be their 14th Leinster title in fifteen years. They have won 68 overall. Dublin are chasing their first Leinster championship title since 1961, and 24th overall.
The winners play Galway in the Leinster final in Croke Park on July 8. The losers go into Phase 2 of the All-Ireland Qualifiers on July 7 which will involve the losing Leinster semi-finalists against the losing Munster semi-finalists (Clare plus Cork or Tipperary).
“Who is available is available,” was the defiant message from Mr Cody when he finished the round up on the injuries issue. “Fifteen players will start. That will be it. Injuries are not the focus. You deal with that and move on.
“The wish of everyone would be that everyone would be available. That is not the case, but the losses don’t change the dynamic or whatever it is. You stay at it. The intent and the desire will be the same. Nothing changes.
Mood, everything is good
“The boys are flying. The preparations have been as honest as ever and the mood and everything else is good. There is no desperation or panic.
“You get on with it. There is a match to be played. We will have a team, and we will take on the big challenge in front of us.”
Typical! This has been a trying season for the Noresiders in terms of injuries. Still, the entire defence from the League final is available – David Herity, Paul Murphy, J.J. Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan and Richie Doyle. Noel Hickey is back training strongly too.
Don’t be surprised if the League combination is fielded intact.
Midfield will change, because of the Michael Fennelly (ankle injury) situation. Paddy Hogan, who started superbly in the middle and was strong throughout, should get the nod again. His partner? Cillian Buckley, Richie Power and T.J. Reid would be likely contenders.
And up front T.J. Reid, Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly, Matthew Ruth and Eoin Larkin from the League final side are all available, while eight times All-Ireland medal winner, Henry Shefflin, is back chasing a shirt after recovering from surgery to repair a shoulder injury that left him inactive for nearly eight months.
Kilkenny may not be able to field what some would regard as their strongest XV, but the side they will have out will be strong, and as ever, ultra competitive.
The losers in Portlaois will enter the dreaded Qualifiers, the long and complicated way round into the All-Ireland series. Kilkenny are not interested!
“Certainly not,” was the assured response from Brian Cody when the prospect was raised. “We want to get into the Leinster final. That is the plan.”
Dubs the most improved team
Dublin are, without a shadow of a doubt, the most improved team in the country in recent years. Their League success last season was viewed as a stepping stone to greater things. They enjoyed four wins in the championship last season, which by Dublin standards, was massive going and they were unlucky to bow out against Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-finals when injuries weakened them seriously.
Cruciate ligament injuries suffered by Conal Keaney, Stephen Hiney and Tomas Brady complicated life for them, but all are back to full, or near full fitness again. They are big, powerful men with stacks of ability, and they bring a huge amount to the hurling table.
One of the finds of the season has been speedy wing-forward, Danny Sutcliffe, who scored 2-3 against Kilkenny in the League match in Nowlan Park. Joey Boland, John McCaffrey and Ryan O’Dwyer are others who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any hurling man.
“They are now among the top three or four teams in the country,” was Mr Cody’s assessment of the opposition. “On any given day they are capable of beating any team. The challenge is there on Saturday for them and for us.
“We have had some great battles over the last few years. This is a big one. Dublin were outstanding last year when short important players. They have everyone available now. That should automatically mean they are at a very, very serious level now, even ahead of where they were last year.”
Kilkenny have no fear or hang-ups about playing in Portlaois, or dealing with a team some commentators suggest is as powerful physically as the Cats. This is a game like any game, but with higher stakes on the table.
This is the championship!
“Just like the players took on the challenge of the League, the challenge now is to take on the championship,” Mr Cody continued. “It is not knock-out from the point of view that the losers are not gone. But you view it as knock-out. In the championship the mentality has to be that this is do or die stuff.
“That is the way we like it. The championship inspires every player, Dublin as well. There is a great recent rivalry between ourselves and Dublin, born out of the fact that both are very decent teams. It is terrific to see that. It is a brilliant game to be looking forward to.
“We are going out to play at our maximum. We have a great belief in ourselves. There are no negatives in our camp. There is no place, no room for negatives.
“This time last year we had a big match with Wexford. It was a big challenge, a great challenge. We played well against them. We are going to have to play well to win this one.
“You have to turn it on in the championship. There is a serious team is front of us trying to halt our progress. Dublin may have been relegated in the League, but as easily they could have won the League. I would be certain their target was never the League. Their target was Saturday.”
The Dubs lashed Laois in their opening joust. The contest was over early.
“Dublin are a very strong, powerful team,” Mr Cody said, again underlining the potential dangers. “They are athletic and they are very skilful. There is nothing between us. On a given day we could beat them or they could beat us. It won’t be a surprise whatever way the result goes.”
Last five championship clashes - 2011, Kilkenny 4-17, Dublin 1-15 (Leinster final); 2010, Kilkenny 4-19, Dublin 0-12 (Leinster semi-final); 2009, Kilkenny 2-18, Dublin 0-18 (Leinster final); 2004, Kilkenny 4-22, Dublin 0-8 (All-Ireland qualifiers); 2003, Kilkenny 3-16, Dublin 0-10 (Leinster semi-final).