Kilkenny have the Walsh Cup and National Hurling League titles in the bag. The next title on the line is the Leinster champion.
Forget everything else for the moment, and go for it!
That was the simple advice from former star, Joe Hennessy, on the eve of the Noresiders Leinster senior hurling championship opener against Offaly in Nowlan Park on Saturday.
Hennessy, who claimed six provincial titles during a distinguished career that also produced three All-Ireland wins and five All-Star awards, said fans were on a high after the excellent ’League campaign and win and expectations were very high, but he warned that championship hurling was a different animal to anything else.
“There are high expectations after winning the National League, but people have to be careful,” the James Stephens clubman insisted. “The lads can only try and do what they did in the League, which was to win, win, win. They are worthy League champions.
“However, you do have a different sort of a game on a different level in the championship. The game is suddenly quicker, everyone is more prepared. I don’t know whether other counties hold back a little in the League, but they are all at their best for the championship.”
He sensed that expectations were high in Kilkenny again after a somewhat disappointing championship last year. He felt the Cats should be able to handle Offaly, but beyond that he saw Galway and holders, Dublin as a major threat to all others in Leinster.
“Offaly are a potential banana skin,” Hennessy suggested. “They love a challenge. In hurling and Gaelic football they have taken on the big names, like the great Kerry team in the 1982 All-Ireland football final, and beaten them.
“You couldn’t back Kerry that time,” Joe recalled. “Offaly are always capable of something like that; of turning over any team on a given day. They won’t be worried coming to Nowlan Park. Forget what happened to them in the League. They have nothing to lose. They scored four goals against us in Tullamore last year and their physical strength and hurling troubled us a lot.
“Who says they can’t do that again, or be even better? You have to be ready for the best, or worst, whatever way you want to look at it. I guarantee you, Offaly will throw all they have at Kilkenny for 20 minutes or so. If they stick with Kilkenny until the second half, and get a foothold in the game, anything could happen. They will take a bit of beating.”
Hennessy, who won senior All-Irelands with Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody in 1982 and 1983, was sure his James Stephens club colleague would have the players firmly ground for what is sure to be an acid test.
“Actually it is nice to have the game in Nowlan Park,” he continued. “It is a great idea to have a home and away system, especially in these difficult times. The business people of Kilkenny are entitled to something every now and again. Look at the night we all had last year after being Tipperary in the championship in Nowlan Park. It was great. Bring on more such occasions, I say.”
County is well served
And he was prepared to go even further: “The day will come, and we are nearly there, when clubs will bring in like agreements. Shamrocks and Carrickshock have it, I think. It is a good idea. Clubs are developing their grounds, and they should get the big club games. Kilkenny is well served by very good grounds at club level.
“Look at James Stephens new grounds. Where would you get it? You have to starting thinking that way. If you want people to watch your games, you have almost to bring them to them. The more convenient things are the better.
“I am looking forward to a terrific championship. I wouldn’t underestimate any county. A lot of counties have the potential to win the McCarthy Cup. On our day we can beat anyone.”
He said he has been talking to the players on and off over the past few months and he “couldn’t believe the drive that was in them.” It was hard to believe, he added, but the desire to win seemed to be getting greater despite all the medals and titles that have won.
“They are really, really looking forward to this,” Hennessy felt. “It seems like last year was a bad memory for them. They want to move on and write a better story. Things appear to be different. There is a good panel is place, better than last year, I would think. Kilkenny are the team to beat. I have no doubt about that.”
Joe was hugely impressed by how Kilkenny performed during the entire League. It didn’t matter what XV they put, they were always strong and competitive. Any lad who got a chance, did fairly well.
“Something like 40 players were used during the Walsh Cup and League, and they all earned their crust,” was his summary of things. “It was hard to credit at times. It is a great compliment to the talent clubs in Kilkenny are turning out.
“Any of the lads joining the Kilkenny panel are coming up 20% or so better when they join Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin, Jackie Tyrrell and the other lads. They are getting the taste of the big time, and they will be all the better for it. Their clubs will be the better for it too. Mixing in that company would only do young players good.”
He was sure the loss of Henry Shefflin and Richie Power through injury would hurt Kilkenny, as any such losses would hurt any county, but there was now an opportunity there for other players.
“Kilkenny should be able to manage Offaly,” Joe continued. “Their aim now should be to reclaim the Bob O’Keeffe Cup. People might think Leinster is a small prize. It is not easily won. It would be disappointing if we don’t win it. That is the standard we set ourselves in this county.
“Reclaim Leinster and take things from there then would be my advice to the players,” Joe said. “We didn’t win it last year. Galway won it the year before. Let that be the next target for Kilkenny.
“Supporters shouldn’t be talking about All-Ireland quarter or semi-finals or anything like that in the excitement after the League win. The next big competition to be won is the Leinster championship. Go out and win it, I would say to the players. Take things from there after that.
“The League title is in the bag. All efforts should be put into winning Leinster. The All-Ireland series then is a different proposition. We all start off again there. Leinster is the next fence to be jumped. Let’s get over it, and then see where we are.”