THE hurling championship has taken off, and in impression fashion too, but Kilkenny are a long way from being cleared for lift off.
The Cats, the current National League champions, must wait until June 23, another three weeks, before unfurling their championship flag and showing what they have to offer this time.
These can be anxious times, especially with a plethora of injuries thrown into the equation.
That is fate. Counties simply have to put up with such inconveniences and get on with life, just as Kilkenny are doing at the moment.
Didn’t it happen to Dublin before the championship last year? They lost key players through injury. Still they roared on as far the All-Ireland semi-final.
With a bit of luck the Dubs could have won that game against Tipperary (1-19 to 0-18) and qualified to contest what would have been their first final since 1961, when they were beaten by Tipp (0-16 to 1-12).
Instead, the final featured Kilkenny and Tipperary for the third consecutive year, and a right humdinger they produced. The pair are the fancy of many to meet again, but there is a long way to go and an awful lot of hurling to be played between now and any might be Croke Park repeat in September.
Tipp, despite a poor third quarter, looked very capable and hugely impressive when beating much improved Limerick by 2-20 to 1-19 in the Munster championship on Sunday. The defending champions played their best hurling when the pressure was at it greatest after they fell seven points behind. Very few counties would have the capacity to win a championship match as Tipp did!
Few teams would have the hurling and mental strength to dig themselves out of trouble the way Tipp did, although it must be pointed out that their opponents suffered over a serious deficiency in experience.
There is an art to putting a team away when you have them down, but Limerick haven’t it yet, as was shown on Sunday, and as was shown in the Division IB final against Clare too. Both days they lost handsome leads during the second period.
Give the Shannonsiders time. They have a young team that can only get better, plus a very, very good manager in John Allen, and he will take them forward, have no fear of that.
If Tipp can match their massive skill level that goes deep into the panel, not just the first XV, with absolute rather than patchy intensity, then their fans are in for a lengthy and exciting year. As a starting point, Sunday’s win by Tipperary was very good and manager, Declan Ryan, had every reason to be pleased.
In the meantime the Cats can only wait and prepare for when their turn comes round. They are working diligently at training in Nowlan Park, and the mood in the camp, is, as ever, very positive.
Manager Brian Cody and fellow selectors, Michael Dempsey and Martin Fogarty have been through all this so often it is second nature to them at this stage. You can be sure that when the time comes to cut loose, Kilkenny will burst out of traps, to use a greyhound term.
The outcome of the Saturday’s quarter-final between National League champions of 2011, Dublin and Laois will determine the first step in the championship for the Noresiders. Kilkenny play the winners in Portlaois on June 23.
Most expect to face Dubs
Most expect the opposition to be provided by Dublin, who are getting a nice shape on their team again with the return of what people have termed the ‘cruciate trio’ of Conal Keaney, Stephen Hiney and Tomas Brady. They are three mighty athletes, mighty men physically and mighty hurlers too. The Dubs will be thrilled and so much richer in quality to have them back fully fit and flying.
If Laois can muster the hurling and physical power, because that will be required too, to beat Dublin then their fans will be celebrating the upset of the championship to date. One is not being disrespectful to Laois in suggesting that.
They know they are the underdogs. They are facing a team that has, as yet, largely unfulfilled potential. Dublin’s win in the League last season was supposed to be a starting point, nothing more.
It was followed by three victories before they exited the championship (over Offaly in Leinster quarter-finals (2-21 to 1-20); Galway in Leinster semi-final (0-19 to 2-7) and Limerick in All-Ireland quarter-final (3-13 to 0-18), which was much more than the Dubs had achieved in modern times.
However, in the end the drain of the injuries caught up on Dublin in the rarefied atmosphere of an All-Ireland semi-final, where there is little room for error, and where missing quality can be cruelly exposed.
In this championship Anthony Daly’s (the Dublin manager) men are better armed to build on the National League success than they were 12 months ago when the injuries crucified them.
Forget the fact that Dublin were relegated from Division I of the League a few weeks ago. That doesn’t matter a lot now. That will be more of a story come quiet news days next spring.
In the meantime Dublin are total in their intent on making championship 2012 their field of opportunity. Word has come to us of recent intense challenge games against Waterford and Cork.
Never so driven
Let’s just say, the Dubs have never been so driven, so focussed, so imbued with the belief that they can achieve something big. Laois had better be prepared because they are facing a driven Dublin hurling team, the likes of which they never faced before.
Meanwhile, Kilkenny are working away quietly. There are injuries, as everyone knows. The players involved there will be looked after well by the medical personnel.
Nothing will be left to chance; nothing will be left undone is the bid to have everyone fit.
In the rush to hear the latest about Henry, Richie, Sean, Michael, Cillian et all people shouldn’t forget that there is a panel in training. Kilkenny’s preparations for June 23 are not being dictated by the injuries. They are a consideration, no doubt. But the preparations are being driven and dictated largely by the players who are able to train; the guys who will make up the team, or most of it, in Portlaois.
There is nothing unusual in that! Dealing and coping with injuries, no matter how bad the run, is part of sport.
It is the strength of the panel, which proved to be more than useful during the seven matches on the road to victory in the League, that will ultimately determine how the rest of the season unfolds for Kilkenny. The progress made by relative newcomers, Matt Ruth, Richie Doyle, Paddy Hogan, Kieran Joyce and even Mark Bergin was a big bonus in the League.
Pushed game forward
T.J. Reid, a hurler gifted with wonderful talent, pushed his game forward to the point where he is a stronger contender than ever for a first team place. On top of that, Paul Murphy, Richie Hogan and Colin Fennelly showed the benefits of a good championship last season and they too have taken their game to a higher level.
All of which is very encouraging for Kilkenny, and balanced against the injuries, is news to be welcomed. Players showing form at this time of the year can only be good for the individual and county.
John Mulhall (St Martin’s) is no longer involved with the squad, a loss of form the reason for the departure, apparently.
This is a time in the season that is always rich in wonder and speculation. Supporters wonder about the team. They measure their favourites against what they see and hear other teams doing. It is all part of the championship banter.
Remember 12 months ago? Fans headed to Wexford Park expecting one helluva test in the championship opener. Kilkenny were ready. They hit the ground running; caught hold of the match from the off. Wexford weren’t given a chance to even threaten, never mind win.
Be it Dublin or Laois in the other corner on June 23, the Cats will be ready!