KILKENNY look like opening the defence of the Allianz National Hurling League with a mere two of the six forwards who started last year’s All-Ireland final, writes John Knox.
While the six defenders who helped forge the county’s 34th All-Ireland victory are available for selection – goalie David Herity is nursing a shoulder injury – only Richie Power and Richie Hogan from the attack are fighting fit at the moment.
Captain from last year, Eoin Larkin, played for about 10 minutes in Leinster’s Railway Cup tie against Connacht at the weekend, but he is carrying a groin injury and he might be nursed through the early rounds of the League.
“Our panel will be tested early this time,” was the overall assessment of the situation and forthcoming challenges by Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody.
He smiled a wry smile when he reviewed the glut of injuries and a testing run of early games that features away ties against Leinster champions, Galway and Munster champions, Tipperary and suggested “there will be nothing easy”.
“It is a fierce tough opening to the League,” the James Stephens clubman added when speaking at a press briefing to announce Glanbia’s new three year sponsorship deal with Kilkenny. “We have Galway away first. Then we have Tipperary away. It will be an early learning process for us.
Spiced up challenge
“The run of games adds spice to the challenge. Obviously we had some great matches with Galway last year, and we are straight into it again this year. That is going to be very, very interesting.”
Long term absentees are Henry Shefflin (ankle), Michael Rice (finger) and T.J. Reid (knee). It could be championship time before that trio are ready to resume hurling.
On top of that, Cillian Buckley (hip), Richie Doyle (hip), Walter Walsh (tendonitis of the knee) and Larkin (groin) look like sitting out the early action. Young Buckley, who forced his way into the team for the All-Ireland final, had surgery 14 weeks ago to correct a hip problem that was, apparently, leading to other injuries that constantly interrupting his career.
“That is enough to keep us going,” was the response from Mr Cody when asked was he sure that was the full list.
As ever, the Cats will charge into the season. They have prepared well, and as ever they will be focussed and utterly determined to do well.
“Our ambition every year is to do as well as we possibly can, and also to have a look at the strength of our panel during the League,” was Mr Cody’s summary as the season’s opener approached.
The tough situation Kilkenny found themselves in presented an opportunity for new players to force their way into the reckoned for first team places, and for others to prove that they still had what it took to be winners at the highest level.
“That is the challenge that is there for everyone now,” said the boss, who is entering his 15th season in charge.
He will be joined on the sideline again by fellow selectors, Michael Dempsey (St Joseph’s) and Martin Fogarty (Erin’s Own).
As ever, the Kilkenny squad evolved, and the retirement of Noel Hickey (Dunnamaggin) during the close season marked the 14th departure from the first All-Ireland winning team during Mr Cody’s distinguished terms. That success was in 2000. That was followed by nine more MacCarthy wins.
“If you stand still you will disappear,” was Mr Cody’s commentary of the ever changing scenario. “In reality that is the way things work. We try not to stand still. The team evolves, and has to evolve. Where it goes this year we will find out.”
The general consensus was that Division IA of the League was a tough, tough place, and the level of competition was ever rising.
“It is tough,” Mr Cody assured. “It is competitive, but that is good. The preparation that is there for later on is serious.
“The standard is going up every year. Look at the competition that is out there this year. Teams who people weren’t look at a couple of years ago are back as contenders. Suddenly you look at Clare, you look at Limerick. They are coming with serious, serious teams again.
“Then further down the line we are facing Offaly in June. Look at the All-Ireland club finals last year and this year. Offaly teams are coming through again. That can only be good for hurling. The League is the launching pad for the season. We will see how we go in it.”
As ever, the All-Ireland would be the main target.
“Absolutely,” Mr Cody insisted.
Kilkenny celebrated last September’s All-Ireland replay victory, as they do all the MacCarthy Cup wins, with gusto. That was all part of the appreciation process, the boss insisted.
He firmly believed that achievement had to be savoured to be fully appreciated.
How big a part of the process was celebrating victories, in the sense of adding meaning to them, one wondered?
“It is important, I think,” he said in reply. “You work very hard to win things. It is something that is massively enjoyable, so it would be very silly to do anything but enjoy it. The players enjoy it. We all enjoy it.
“That is what makes it special, I suppose. It is the nature of sports people and people in general that if you achieve something serious that you enjoy it and celebrate it in various ways. That doesn’t mean you celebrate it in ways that will cut across your preparations for the following year.
“You celebrate and enjoy it. The feel good factor is not something that should be allowed fade away too quickly.”
Kilkenny face an uphill battle at the start of a demanding League campaign that appears to be front loaded for the delectation of the fans. The bad run of injuries could turn it into an ultra testing time for the champions, but don’t count on it!