ALL-IRELAND champions, Kilkenny, are thrilled with what they have taken from the Allianz National Hurling League to date, and victory in the final would cap off everything nicely, writes John Knox.
The Cats have used the competition well, and in all, 24 players got some useful game time behind them. Competition for places within the squad has reached a new height, and the McCarthy Cup holders are eagerly looking forward to the decider against Cork, the only team to beat them in the competition to date.
“We had two ambitions at the start of the League,” explained Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody, after Clare were dismissed in the semi-finals on Sunday. “The first was to try and win it, and then we wanted the opportunity to look at as many on the panel as we could.
“Now we are in the League final and a lot of the players have been exposed to serious competition. All the players answered the call when it came. We are very happy with things.
“Different opportunities arose for different players during the League and again in this match, and the response was good.
“That is what we are looking for, that the players show us they have serious ambitions about playing. They are on the panel. Being on the panel is great, but they must want to go further and to break into the team. That is the way things should be.”
Mr Cody said opportunities always arose during the League for players to show what they could do.
“You have to take the opportunity when it comes,” he said. “Injuries forced our hand in certain situations. It wasn’t that we simply tried out players. The players have to step in and take on the challenge when it is put in front of them. In fairness, that is what they have done.”
He said Kilkenny were getting back into the swing of things now that the evenings were lengthening. They were getting in more hurling during training sessions.
“Lads will play with their clubs next weekend, and the week after that we will get back into training for the final,” the James Stephens man explained. “We will take things on from there. We want to win the League, make no mistake about that.”
The Noresiders suffered a rash of injuries in the run up to Sunday’s big game. Richie Hogan, who picked a bad rib and lung injury in the last match against Galway, and Henry Shefflin are recoverying from injuries that won’t come right in a few days. They won’t figure in plans for the League final.
Michael Rice is nursing a number of knocks and wasn’t even listed for aciton on Sunday. Likewise Noel Hickey, while Aidan Fogarty fractured his wrist which will take a couple of weeks.
Paddy Hogan was added to the list of subs just before Sunday’s match. He is nursing a hamstring strain.
“We are hopeful things will come together pretty quickly for most of them,” was the word from the team boss.
With regard to Sunday’s game and performance, Mr Cody said the heavy shower of rain at the start made conditions difficult.
“I suppose the goal we got early in the second half gave us that bit of breathing space,” he continued. “It was a very competitive match. It was never easy at any stage.
“Clare brought real intensity to it in the first half. You expect that. It was a serious challenge for us. If we had been less than competitive we would have been in serious trouble. The goal was an important score.”
He reminded that Kilkenny nearly scored a goal in the first half. The ball was heading over the line after Eoin Larkin had been fouled. Play was called back, and the Cats were awarded a penalty, which was saved.
“That save was a big boost to Clare,” he thought. “We got no return from the penalty, so the goal in the second half was a good boost and we kicked on from there.
“It is nice to be back in the League final. We won’t be trying to make up for the loss in last year’s final. That is over and done with. We wanted to be in the League final, and now we are there we want to win it.”