Kilkenny’s hurling dominance could be a cause for concern

As KILKENNYsupporters exited Semple Stadium after the comfortable National Hurling League final win over Cork thoughts immediately turned to the upcoming Leinster championship. Cork had been so convincingly pushed aside that the Cats were now even hotter favourites to capture the McCarthy Cup.

As KILKENNYsupporters exited Semple Stadium after the comfortable National Hurling League final win over Cork thoughts immediately turned to the upcoming Leinster championship. Cork had been so convincingly pushed aside that the Cats were now even hotter favourites to capture the McCarthy Cup.

Not for the first time supporters everywhere looked in awe at Kilkenny’s performance. Cork came into the final with genuine aspirations of beating the All-Ireland champions. Pundits in many outlets felt the Rebels had demonstrated sufficient progress throughout the League to take the scalp of the Cats.

As Cork supporters headed to Semple Stadium from the centre of Thurles many popped in to a well-known bookmaker to place their hard-earned cash on a Cork win, while the more ambitious opted for a double with a Munster title success also. Team manager, Jimmy Barry Murphy must now rethink his team and his strategy before he faces the winners of Tipperary and Limerick, but Cork’s heavy loss poses big questions for a lot more counties other than Cork.

For all the enjoyment experienced by Kilkenny supporters following this latest national success, the result has to be hugely worrying for hurling. I realise Kilkenny could succumb to any of a half dozen sides on any given day, but the county and its players are currently operating at a level way beyond it nearest challengers.

Dominance

Kilkenny’s dominance will not be openly accepted publically by other teams or team managers, but if one is a player on any side challenging for the McCarthy Cup in 2012, the thoughts of facing Kilkenny have to be a daunting one. Kilkenny has attained its current status through hard work and supreme dedication, and led by men who demand exceptionally high standards and work ethic from every player, irrespective of the length of time they have been on the panel.

The Kilkenny template has been honed to perfection over the past decade or more and any player with ambitions to be part of the current squad knows what is required to be part of such an elite group of talented sportsmen. In Kilkenny it is always about the team, not the individual. Egos are not tolerated.

Kilkenny’s success rate over the past decade has helped to instil great confidence in both the team and the training methods deployed. The Kilkenny formula should be no surprise to anyone now, although Cork did appear to be shell-shocked at the physicality of the Cats in the final.

Make no mistake about it, Kilkenny are physical and exert huge pressure on opponents. Any team that takes the field against the Cats must firstly be prepared to handle that aspect of the game.

The Cork game was a good example of Kilkenny using its physicality to dominate its opponents and entirely within the rules of the game.

Referee James McGrath let the game flow, but that might not have been the case with a different official. Every hurling referee is given the precise same instructions, yet it is frustrating when incidents are interpreted differently.

Admiration unquestionable

Some define such decision making as ‘common sense’, but the reality is that the GAA continues to struggle getting referees to give consistent interpretations on incidents in games.

I met people from a number of counties at the end of the League final almost despairing at the current state of hurling. Their admiration of Kilkenny was unquestioned, but they wondered if hurling had become too predictable?

But hurling is about more than just Kilkenny. We may be the aristocrats of the game, but that long reign of success has made hurling less attractive for many people. No one can lay any blame at Kilkenny’s door for its current dominant position.

The county has an array of leaders at managerial and administrative levels whose close working harmony has been at the root of such a gloriously successful period. At club level, legions of foot-soldiers coach the next generation to ensure they are handed on to inter-county managers in a state of readiness to take on the best at all grades and all levels.

It is a formula that many have tried to emulate, but few have succeeded.

When you get respected hurling men speaking in such pessimistic terms about hurling it has to be a cause for concern. I am well aware that Dublin, Tipperary and Galway, just to mention a few counties, will not roll-over if they face Kilkenny in the 2012 championship, but if supporters feel their county has no chance against the Cats will they bother travelling to games? It is clear that many Kilkenny supporters are now taking a Cats success for granted. In the League final Kilkenny possibly had less than one thousand supporters in Semple Stadium. Opponents Cork had in the region of 13,000. The Rebels’ supporters came to Thurles confident that an overdue national title could be secured. Kilkenny deserved much, much better support.

For sure, the economic plight of some people is a factor, but it is hard not to think that we have taken success for granted. It is hard not to believe also that the views of those people I spoke with in Semple Stadium are not shared by numerous others around the country.

A real worry

Whether such pessimism impacts on attendances at upcoming championship games remains to be seen. Kilkenny’s dominance must be a real worry for the GAA also.

I applaud the efforts being made to support hurling in the non-traditional counties, but the problem is more acute at the other end of the spectrum. The National Hurling League has just concluded and immediate surgery would be a welcome first task for the new Hurling Development Committee.

This year’s League delivered a number of excellent ties, but five games is insufficient to promote the sport. This year Kilkenny was fortunate to have three games in Nowlan Park, but if the same format applies in 2013 the county will only have two games.

The Kilkenny Supporters Club has once again launched a scheme to attract support from businesses around the city and county and big games in Nowlan Park is a major opportunity to repay that loyalty. Two games are hardly adequate in this regard.

There is an even more alarming prospect on the horizon depending on what transpires in the 2012 championship. Can anyone recall the last time Kilkenny did not play Wexford or Offaly in a League or championship tie in a calendar year?

That is a real prospect in 2012.

The county’s great Leinster rivals may have fallen on tough times, but it is surely not acceptable that these counties should go through an entire year without meeting. Nothing sums up the current plight of hurling more than this ridiculous situation.  

Kilkenny looked unbeatable on Sunday week, but the reality is that no county can afford the loss of so many key players. Henry Shefflin’s injury has been well documented, but over the past few months many more players have joined their colleague on the sideline.

Some players are likely to return for the championship (most likely against Dublin), but Michael Fennelly’s will not be one of them. His loss is immense.

The worry is that while the players will return to championship action at some stage during 2012, the nature of their injuries may curtail their involvement and shorten their inter-county careers.

Championship about to start

Saturday marks the start of the 2012 GAA senior hurling championship with Laois playing Carlow and Antrim playing Westmeath. I saw Laois and Carlow playing in Nowlan Park recently and I anticipate a close game.

With a number of Loughgiel Shamrocks players back with Antrim after the club’s All-Ireland club final success, it may be enough to give them the edge over Westmeath. The midlanders were far from impressive in the Division 2 League final against Carlow and they will need to show a big improvement if they are to defeat the Glensmen.

I started this piece on the pessimism surrounding Kilkenny’s dominance of the hurling world. There is nothing better to change the views of hurling people everywhere than a couple of exciting games in the upcoming Leinster or Munster championships. 

If that happens, maybe followers might start believing that Kilkenny are not invincible.

Local action

With the National League trophy safety in Eoin Larkin’s possession, it was back to local action in the Kilkenny senior and intermediate leagues last weekend. Results went more or less according to plan in the first round, but last weekend’s action threw up a few mild surprises.

Ballyhale Shamrocks were pushed all the way by Danesfort two weeks ago, but last weekend they showed they may well be the team to beat this year with a 19 point win over Dunnamaggin. Henry Shefflin’s return will be warmly greeted all over Kilkenny, and his presence on the pitch, albeit for a short period, clearly inspired his colleagues.

Saturday’s double header in Nowlan Park brought the expected results, but they could easily have been reversed. Erin’s Own dominated Carrickshock in the opening 10 minutes to lead by three points.

By the fifteenth minute the Southerners were ahead and kept their noses in front all the way to the finish. It took the sending off of a player to re-ignite the Erin’s Own challenge.

Wasteful shooting from play and frees was also to prove costly for the Comer men. Carrickshock was marginally the better side, but Erin’s own will see the result as two points lost.

The second game in Nowlan Park had a similar outcome. Danesfort dominated the first half and deservedly led by five points at half time. The St. Martin’s tactics of leaving Paul Murphy as a spare Danesfort defender for much of the opening half was a big factor in his side’s dominance.

From an early stage in the second half one sensed a more determined attitude from St. Martin’s. By degrees they eroded the Danesfort lead, but it was not until five minutes from the end that they went ahead.

The closing stages were full of drama as Danesfort pressed forward for a goal. Paddy Hogan made a valiant effort from a close-in free, but the result was another agonising defeat for the Danesfort men. Their efforts deserved a share of the spoils.

A disappointing city derby saw O’Loughlin Gales easily defeat Dicksboro. The ’Boro are starting to look like relegation candidates at this early stage.

The remaining city side, James Stephens, got their campaign back on track with a deserved win over Graigue-Ballycallan. The reigning champions laid the foundations for this win with a strong first half display.

Great credit is due the Fenians. A miserly three-point return in their opening game hinted at a very difficult season, but they came back impressively to defeat Tullaroan.

It is a long time since St Patrick’s (Ballyragget) tasted defeat, but that was their fate against the Emeralds. The Urlingford side deserved to take the points and it was a good response to their loss to St Lachtain’s six days earlier.

Young Irelands continued their impressive form with a two point win over St Lachtain’s. The losers would have been favourites, but Gowran are making steady progress under the tutelage of D.J. Carey.

Clara is already looking the side to beat in the intermediate grade following another impressive win, this time over Mullinavat. Glenmore and Tullougher had good wins over Conahy Shamrocks and Mooncoin, leaving the losers pointless after two games.

Finally, last year’s beaten intermediate finalists, Rower-Inistioge, will be glad to have got back to winning ways with a four-point win over John Lockes.

The final series of league games this coming weekend before the break for inter-county action will give a clearer picture of the fate of all club’s before the competition resumes in July.