ALL THE other counties have delivered their opening statement in the hurling championship. On Saturday, Kilkenny will take their bow in the testing arena that is sure to be Wexford Park.
Bearing in mind the recent past, when deadly, dynamic, all conquering Kilkenny completed the All-Ireland three in-a-row, then the four in-a-row before making a brave stab at the never before achieved five in-a-row, this championship will be very, very different for this county.
Around this time last season when Kilkenny faced their opening engagement in the Leinster senior championship the thoughts of fans – not the players, mind you - were fixed on the first Sunday in September and prospects in the All-Ireland final. Well, if not exactly that far ahead, they were thinking beyond the Leinster campaign anyway.
Not this time! The gap between former hot prospects Kilkenny and all other contenders has been closed.
In the case of Tipperary, they have out-stripped the Cats as the epic battle in last year’s All-Ireland final proved.
How Dublin and Kilkenny measure up right now following the strong win by the former in the National League final is another matter, a subject for debate later, hopefully.
Now, on Saturday, Kilkenny face into the championship against Wexford as Ordinary Joe’s. History and tradition would suggest Kilkenny could grow into something.
Right now, in terms of championship 2011, they are categorised as a ‘prove yourself’ outfit.
There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody and fellow selectors, Martin Fogarty and Michael Dempsey would probably prefer the current situation in this regard, seeing that it is removed to some degree from the hype and garland throwing that can surround champions, hot prospects and so on.
The Kilkenny motto at the Nowlan Park training camp is as ever – there is a game to be played and won. Winning a place in the Leinster final is the one and only goal.
Right now Wexford are in season high form. They won their last match, beating Antrim well by 3-16 to 1-11 in the championship. Before that they drew with All-Ireland champions, Tipperary in the last round of the National League (1-14 (W) to 0-17). Before that they beat Cork (1-16 to 1-15) in the League.
After taking a while to find their feet in Division I, the Slaneysiders have been getting things together nicely. Manager Colm Bonnar has measured the progress, and he is cautious.
“We face a massive task against Kilkenny,” he said. “Kilkenny will have a major say in this championship and having them in Wexford Park will wake us up very quickly.”
He went on the record earlier in the season and suggested Kilkenny were the team to beat in the championship. He hasn’t changed his mind.
Thrilled with attitude
Still, he has been thrilled with the attitude and progress of his squad. No manager would single out players at times like this, but he must be pleased with the likes of new full-back, Matthew O’Hanlon, Paul Roche, who is back to full fitness again, man mountain Stephen Banville, Rory Jacob, Darren Stamp, David Redmond and so on.
Wexford are on the up and up again. They will be enthused by the prospect of measuring themselves against Kilkenny.
In the League clash at Nowlan Park they were beaten by 2-16 to 0-17. Later they lost to Dublin and Offaly, but they showed terrific character when harvesting three points at the back end of the campaign which guaranteed their status in Division I next sesson.
Kilkenny’s most recent outing was in the League final against Dublin. They were beaten, comprehensively it must be said, by 0-22 to 1-7. The big question posed after that shocking reverse was – is the party over?
The party referred to was the last five years of unprecedented success enjoyed by the Cats. Everyone knew the successful strike rate couldn’t go on forever, but each time as a new season dawned the players, fans, Kilkenny people everywhere, longed to squeeze one last drop of juice from the championship orange.
It didn’t happen in terms of the All-Ireland in 2010. Now a new chapter with a new team is about to begin.
And a new team it will be, with the prospect of up to five new faces appearing in Saturday’s championship side, namely goalie David Herity, Paul Murphy, Paddy Hogan, possibly Matt Ruth and the outstanding success from the League, Colin Fennelly.
It doesn’t look like Michael Fennelly will make the cut because of a hand injury, but Tommy Walsh (injured shoulder) should be okay. He was in outstanding form in the recent club game against O’Loughlin-Gaels. He was back to his all action best.
However, the loss of a powerhouse like Fennelly would be huge. On the plus side, James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick is finding his best game again. Old hands like Hickey, Larkin, Brennan and so on will be aboard driving, driving, driving.
New edge to attack
Henry Shefflin and Richie Power will return to provide a new edge to the attack after missing the entire League. If this contest comes down to power in the forwards, then the Cats look to have the edge.
Shefflin may be a wee bit short of hurling at the moment, but he has made massive strides after recovering from a second cruciate ligament operation. He is mad keen for action. Power was eager to get back playing at the end of the League, but management decided to hold off and give him plenty of time to get himself right for the championship. He is ready!
Facing Wexford in the championship is tough at any time. Facing them in Wexford Park, where the home fans can create an intimidating atmosphere, is something else. From a Kilkenny point of view, this fixture looks a lot more challenging and difficult now than it did some months ago, pre-Christmas, for example.
Wexford look to have more direction and belief now. They have the vital edge of having played a championship game.
Kilkenny have lost the ‘fear factor’ that was there last year and in previous seasons. The less than convincing showing in the League final didn’t help things.
Some years ago at an under-21 match in Wexford Park I remember the home fans cutting loose. The din was something else. It helped their team I have no doubt about that.
Kilkenny are facing an almighty challenge. The action will be tough, 100mph stuff (you get the drift) from the off. It won’t be easy, but victory can be theirs.