Cats have the ability to drive on strongly

The disappointment of last year’s hurling championship quarter-final loss to Cork is still felt by Kilkenny players and supporters, writes Nickey Brennan.

The disappointment of last year’s hurling championship quarter-final loss to Cork is still felt by Kilkenny players and supporters, writes Nickey Brennan.

It was 17 years (1996) since Kilkenny people had to sit back and watch other counties play out the closing stages of the senior hurling championship.

Despite winning the 2013 National Hurling League, Kilkenny never looked comfortable in the championship, and that included the first game against Offaly. A raft of injuries left the squad depleted and limited options.

The loss to Cork left people wondering if the break-up of this remarkable team was at hand. Time waits for no man. Given the long journey a number of the players have travelled since their early twenties, perhaps that Sunday afternoon would be their last in a county jersey.

No retirements were announced. That was hardly a surprise. All needed time to reflect on their 2013 performances.

Still, the speculation continued as to who might still be around for the 2014 National League. As the League commenced it was good to see the long-serving players slowly re-emerging, and more importantly, looking ready and focused for another season.

Winning the 2014 League was a bonus. However, it was not all plain sailing, bearing in mind some indifferent performances. There was a definite improvement in the semi-final against Galway with Kilkenny playing with far greater authority and purpose than the opposition.

The performance against Tipperary in the League final was not quite at the same level. That, though, was primarily down to the display from the home side who belied their earlier League form to present Kilkenny with its toughest outing of 2014.

Kilkenny got some lucky breaks, but the result was ultimately down to a couple of brilliant individual performances.

Now five weeks later and Kilkenny starts the championship against Offaly, the same opponents as in 2013. The teams come into Saturday’s clash in Nowlan Park with contrasting form.

Aside from winning the League, Kilkenny unearthed a couple of talented newcomers. Padraig Walsh, Brian Kennedy, Joey Holden and Mark Kelly may not all start on Saturday, but they have established themselves as valuable members of the panel.

The longer established players who returned at various stages got valuable game time with their clubs in recent weeks. Sadly the game will not feature Henry Shefflin (foot injury), Richie Power (hamstring) or Michael Rice (cruciate).

Shefflin was always going to be around for 2014 as hurling’s greatest ever player could not contemplate retiring after the disappointment of being sent off against Cork last July.

The Ballyhale man’s contributions for the remainder of this year may well be sporadic, but he remains a valuable member of the squad such is the influence he exerts over the rest of the players.

Offaly travel following a very poor National League. In addition, their championship preparations included a couple of heavy losses in challenge games.

Manager Brian Whelahan knows the scale of the task ahead. It took a play-off victory over Kerry for Offaly to retain Division 1B League status, so confidence is an issue.

One thing about Offaly is their ability to conjure up an occasional big performance, especially against Kilkenny. Brian Cody will be well aware of that. I am sure this was mentioned.

The odds heavily favour Kilkenny to reach the Leinster semi-final. Offaly will need to at least repeat their performance of 12 months ago to have any chance.

Saturday’s tie will create its own bit of history with Sky Sports broadcasting a GAA game live for the first time. I am as curious as everyone to see how they will present and analyse the game. Their analysts, Jamsie O’Connor and Nicky English, know the game very well. The programme’s anchor Rachel Wyse is also very well versed on the GAA inter-county scene.

Interesting times ahead!