Opportunity beckons for the new players in a challenging League

Kilkenny’s current strategy with the Walsh Cup tournament is to send out a team of emerging talent, principally under-21 players. For any player with ambitions of making the next championship squad the Walsh Cup offers a real opportunity, writes Nickey Brennan.

Kilkenny’s current strategy with the Walsh Cup tournament is to send out a team of emerging talent, principally under-21 players. For any player with ambitions of making the next championship squad the Walsh Cup offers a real opportunity, writes Nickey Brennan.

That strategy also ensures that the previous year’s squad get in a month’s training prior to the commencement of the National Hurling League.

The only downside is that the many of the players may go into the ’League with little game time, other than in-house training matches. Kilkenny travels to Galway on Sunday for the opening round of the 2013 ’League. It will be a difficult first outing for the reigning champions.

Galway had the benefit of two games in the Walsh Cup, defeating Carlow and losing to the eventual winners Dublin. Many of the Galway 2012 panel got some game time during those two ties.

Game time helpful

There is, though, an unusual twist to Sunday’s game at Pearse Stadium in that many of the players faced each other last Sunday in the inter-provincial semi-final in Tullamore between Leinster and Connacht.

That game afforded some of the Kilkenny team an opportunity to get in a competitive game before they face their 2012 All-Ireland opponents. That will be helpful at the start of another competitive season.

Due to Kilkenny’s long injury list, Sunday’s opener will see a number of players get an opportunity to impress the selectors. We do not know when Henry Shefflin, Michael Rice or T.J. Reid will return from their injuries, while two of the stars from the 2012 All-Ireland final, Cillian Buckley and Walter Walsh have also been receiving treatment.

Other panellists are likely to be absent also.

The injuries to Rice and Reid have been well documented. Both were a blight on last year’s championship.

It is hoped that Buckley and Walsh will return to the Kilkenny squad shortly. Participation in the League is important to both in affording them further opportunity to gain more experience at the highest level.

Kilkenny’s attitude to the League is well known and reflects the county’s approach to every competition. Teams, or more especially their managers, who talk down the importance of the League do their players and county a great disservice.

Winning becomes a habit, just like losing can also become a habit. How can any manager expect his players to be motivated for the League if his own attitude is indifferent?

Two objectives in League

Kilkenny has consistently approached the League with two objectives in mind. Firstly, it is to win the competition and the county’s track record in this regard, particularly over the past decade, has been impressive.

Serious revenue

Secondly, there is the revenue that the League generates for any county which gets to the closing stages.

A brief glance at the Kilkenny accounts over the past decade will show how financially rewarding League performances have been to the county. So as a new hurling year starts in earnest on Sunday we wonder what it has in store.

We can expect Kilkenny to be the favourites for the League and Championship, but I never pay much heed to such labels. We can be sure that Kilkenny, irrespective of the composition of the team, will not lack commitment heading into the West.

Clashes between these great rivals rarely disappoint and Galway will want to lay down an early marker at the start of a new season. Every player starting on Sunday, particularly the newcomers, know that if they perform well they will hold their place on the team irrespective of who may be absent.

It is a policy that has worked very well for the Kilkenny mentors. For any emerging player the message is clear - perform well and it is up to someone else to dislodge you from the team.

The Cats will be fired up for action against Galway, but this is only February and we may need to be patient with the team over the next two months.

This is a big year for Galway manager, Anthony Cunningham, and his players. Galway enjoyed a very good 2012, but the side now needs to push on and show that it is capable of better.

Can get better

And there is no doubt they can get better. Too often in the past Galway teams faded after a promising year, but I believe there is a more solid foundation to the current squad than we have witnessed for some time.

Connacht’s 3-13 to 1-16 success on Sunday over a Leinster side that had many Kilkenny players aboard is a clear indicator that the Westerners are in good shape.

The result of Sunday’s game will not define the 2013 season for either county, but it will at least give us an early insight into the form of the top two hurling counties at the start of another year.