Three teams will be hoping to put their best foot forward when the Leinster senior hurling championship opens for two more counties on Saturday.
The consequences are obvious for combatants, Kilkenny and Offaly. They want to make the semi-finals. They are also huge, but in a different sense, for Sky Sports who commence their association with Gaelic games at Kilkenny’s homely Nowlan Park.
There is great curiosity about what the Sky team will bring to the coverage of Gaelic games. We await the revelations. Of course, the greater interest here will be in how ‘the boys’ will perform only weeks after being crowned ’League champions after an epic battle against old rivals, Tipperary.
Things didn’t go all that well for Tipp in Munster. They were beaten by champions, Limerick. A few weeks ago Kilkenny and Tipperary were on the lips of all tipsters after the League showdown. Form suggested they would be among the championship contenders for sure.
That didn’t turn out to be the case after the counties clashed in the 2013 League final, which was another good contest. The championship brought little joy to either. It could happen again!
Life has been seriously complicated for Kilkenny by the injuries to Henry Shefflin (stress fracture), Richie Power (hamstring) and the unfortunate Michael Rice (cruciate), an injury sustained during a training camp in Carton House at the weekend.
That is a fair loss of good talent, and it adds a degree of difficulty not just for the Offaly game, but for whatever tests lie beyond. Whatever ideas manager Brian Cody and fellow selectors, Michael Dempsey, Derek Lyng and James McGarry had about the composition of the team prior to the weekend will probably change now.
For Saturday, Offaly will be without regular full-back, David Kenny, while there are serious doubts about the involvement of Colin Egan, Conor Mahon and under-21 player of last year, Stephen Quirke, who was credit with scoring one of the four goals they put past the Cats in Tullamore in a game at the same level last season.
Basically the midlanders could be without the spine of their team. Manager Brian Whelahan is putting a brave face on things, something he has had to do all season. Offaly suffered badly in the League. An unlucky draw left them with a difficult start in Division IB of the league, and when results didn’t go their way, they were on the back foot from the off.
They played Dublin in a challenge match recently, and while beaten, there were signs that things might be on the turn for Offaly. Rory Hanniffy, team captain Joe Bergin, Brian Carroll and Kilcormac Killoughy pair, Thomas and Peter Geraghty and others have been driving on regardless, even in the face indifference by fans.
They are chasing a victory they know would be regarded as a shock, if they can pull it off!
Kilkenny are in a peculiar position now. Because of the troubles in the background, they don’t only need a win, they need a strong performance too to reinforce the message that their League win, and the panel they assembled during it, were as solid as they looked.
The Noresiders never really recovered after the shaky start in Tullamore 12 months ago (see details below). Okay, the subsequent win over Tipperary in the Qualifiers in Nowlan Park was special, but the circumstances were way out of the ordinary.
The four goals conceded to Offaly, and the lack of power in the attack against Dublin in the next outing, left question hanging over Kilkenny. Opponents sniffed signs of waning power; they shed the ‘fear factor’. Hence the need for a big showing now.
How will the Kilkenny team shape up? Brian Cody has admitted that the championship could bring ‘day to day, horses for courses selections’. Of all the different teams fielded during the League, for me the one in the semi-final - during the second half, that is - performed with the most promise.
That had Padraig Walsh, Brian Hogan and Cillian Buckley on the half-back line, and John Power in attack. Shefflin was at top of the left. He was brilliant, in terms of finishing and as creator.
The selectors changed things around for the final. Jackie Tyrrell performed well at No. 6. Richie Hogan was the centre-froward. Richie Power was back in after injury. There was no John Power. Shefflin was in. The team won.
If sport is results driven, Kilkenny fans have little to complain about right now; the curse of injuries aside, that is. Lester Ryan will force his way into the reckoning; Rice, I suspect, would have too; John Power will. Kieran Joyce and Eoin Larkin started on the bench in the League final. Definitely serious options, as are Walter Walsh and Aidan Fogarty.
And who knows, Tommy Walsh could be back in an old position - in attack.
Kilkenny, kings in Division IA are expected to put away Offaly, strugglers in Division IB. The manner in which they perform will be vital, however. Galway await.
The 2013 fACTS
Kilkenny 0-26, Offaly 4-9
Scorers: Kilkenny – Eoin Larkin (0-11, 10 frees, one 65); Richie Power (0-4, one free); Richie Hogan (0-3); Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, Lester Ryan, Colin Fennelly, T.J. Reid, Aidan Fogarty, Walter Walsh, Matthew Ruth (0-1 each). Offaly – Colin Egan (1-2); Shane Dooley (0-5, four frees, one 65); Brian Carroll (1-1); Joe Bergin (1-0); 1-0 (og); Chris McDonald (0-1).
Kilkenny – Eoin Murphy, Paul Murphy, J.J. Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, Kieran Joyce, Lester Ryan, Michael Rice, T.J. Reid, Richie Power, Eoin Larkin, Colin Fennelly, Richie Hogan, Aidan Fogarty. Subs – Conor Fogarty for Tyrrell (inj); Walter Walsh for Fogarty; Cillian Buckley for Reid; Matthew Ruth for Larkin; Paddy Hogan for Rice.
Offaly – James Dempsey, Chris McDonald, David Kenny (capt), Dermot Mooney, Rory Hanniffy, Ger Healion, Cathal Parlon, Brian Carroll, Kevin Brady, Ciarán Slevin, Conor Mahon, Sean Cleary, Shane Dooley, Colin Egan, Joe Bergin. Subs – Dan Currams for S. Cleary; Derek Molloy for C. Mahon; Tomás Carroll for C. Slevin; Sean Ryan for K. Brady.