Back to form or not, the semi will be all about the day

KILKENNY got what some suggested was a ‘cure all win’ over Limerick. An interesting assumption, but that’s not the way things work in sport.

KILKENNY got what some suggested was a ‘cure all win’ over Limerick. An interesting assumption, but that’s not the way things work in sport.

Every big day, every big challenge, is a stand alone test, something to be taken on when it arises, and without presumption.

Sport at the highest level is all about the here and now, the performance on the day!

We have seen it time and again on our television screens these past few weeks as the consuming action unfolded in the London Olympics. At the highest level, where only the cream perform and the best survive, the ones with genuine hopes of achievement still have to be at their best if they are to turn aspiration into achievement.

Near or close to the best, no matter how honest the will, how consuming the passion, is simply not good enough. Hurling life at the highest level is no different.

On Sunday week Kilkenny and Tipperary will clash in the All-Ireland senior semi-final in Croke Park, the fourth successive season they will meet at All-Ireland level. The rules are the same as ever for both counties – only the best on the day will do.

People in Tipperary, like their opposition numbers in this county, are in speculation mode; their players we can do this to the opposition; alternatively, the opposition might do that to us; so-and-so is ready to get his own back after this, that or the other.

Back on track

Comfort talk! We all indulged in a bit of it from time to time, but it is only that… I was surprised by the number of people who offered the opinion after the recent All-Ireland quarter-final win over Limerick that Kilkenny were back on track again.

The lesson after the shock defeat by Galway in the Leinster final was suddenly diluted, downgraded from a potential season destroying event to ‘one of those things’.

The simple lesson, as Kilkenny manager Brian Cody is forever saying, was that if you don’t perform on the day then you leave yourself open to disappointment.

Sure, the Cats got back on track against Limerick in terms of qualifying for the All-Ireland semi-final. The win brought no bigger prize than that, no further assurance that the end of the road might be paved with gold.

And why should it? A nine point win that included the scoring of four goals (4-16 to 1-16) was fair going against a team that is improving, plays to a solid game plan, and which has a fair physical edge to it.

Kilkenny out-scored the Shannonsiders comprehensively by 2-9 to 0-7 during the second half (at half-time it was 2-7 to 1-9) when playing against the wind. That sort of effort, that sort of scoring, it must be admitted, was impressive.

However, what went before, during the opening half, left me wondering, a bit uneasy. The work-rate was good. The discipline was good.

But there were times when Kilkenny’s hurling was too ragged for comfort, almost naive at times, as some players were drawn too easily to the ball and out of position, leaving huge holes all over the pitch that Limerick tried to exploit.

You see, Kilkenny don’t play like that ordinarily. When they attack an opponent, the ball, they generally close down openings and options, and they do it all over the park.

Squeeze life out of teams

There is no better hurling team than Kilkenny to squeeze the life out of opponents through a combination of ceaseless work and numbers around the point of contact. Against Limerick the chase was there, but the closing down didn’t work….in the first half.

A couple of other things cropped up too. One defender was way off in the timing in the tackles and charged in too rashly; another looked unnerved when an attacker raced at him and another in attack struggled with the pace of the game.

These are the sort of things that can happen in a team sport, especially with 15 individuals all trying to get their game right together. Rarely does it happen!

The first half showing against Limerick wasn’t Kilkenny from the League generally; the League final or the championship opener against Dublin.

Had the Galway affair really spooked the team, one wondered?

Brian Cody and his fellow selectors, Martin Fogarty and Michael Dempsey, obviously addressed things during the rest. Almost immediately the closing down game was sorted.

There were no open spaces, no extra man running on to the ball for Limerick.

Kilkenny were all over them like a bad rash.

The new found or rediscovered Kilkenny ‘way’ was epitomised by the cameo in which Michael Fennelly stole the ball from the opposition before lashing an angled delivery from the left of midfield to a free Aidan Fogarty, who hung it up in the back of the net. The score was 3-13 to 1-11. Limerick were on a rescue mission after that.

Brian Cody dismissed any suggestion that Kilkenny were suffering a post Leinster final hang-over during the opening half. He should know. With the selectors he spends long hours working with the players, talking to them, studying their form, watching their moods, gauging their state of mind.

Nothing is left to chance!

The win, or the way it was achieved with one very strong bout of 35 minutes of hurling, showed that when Kilkenny are firing on all cylinders, they can be destroyers. That level of performance was comforting, but those who think it will happen again automatically on August 19 should think again.

All about the day

Remember the Cody dogma – it is all about the day! Forget the ‘one good win, cure all’ talk.

Kilkenny went away to a training camp – they left Friday and returned on Saturday night after getting in three sessions – to help focus minds on the tough job ahead. The training at Nowlan Park will continue to be closed to the public until next week as all energies are put into having things right on the 19th.

At least things are looking up at training. Richie Power trained, and trained very well over the weekend after being downed by a heavy tackle against Limerick which cut short his involvement in the game before half-time. Things are also looking up for Brian Hogan also, who missed the last match with a calf muscle injury. His chances of facing Tipp have improved, considerably.

Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice have a full championship match behind them after being troubled for ages by injury. They can only get better, stronger, faster, thereby becoming more influential in terms of how they can bring their many attributes to bear on matches. Having two players of their undoubted class and physical strength back in harness is a huge, huge boost.

The return to full health of J.J. Delaney and Colin Fennelly has to be comforting news too. Could it be that after a season blighted by injury, luck is turning for Kilkenny as the season reaches the business end of things?

Remember too, the great form shown by T.J. Reid against Limerick. Another plus! The thing now is, do the selectors play him from the start or let him loose during the action, when he appears to dig out his best returns. From in training will most probably be the deciding factor, as it always is!

Hogan a big loss

The suspension of Richie Hogan is going to be a big loss against Tipperary. He is not only a score getter, but also a great creator of chances and space and someone who can be played in a variety of positions. Few are blessed with his natural talent, a talent that was showcased in the absolutely magnificent goal he scored in the All-Ireland final against Tipp last year. Finishers like that are few and far between.

As in the case of an injured player, Kilkenny must move on. They must play with the hand they have, not the one they would like.

Sunday week promises to be another wonderful hurling day. Tipperary, the Munster champions, are working away trying to perfect their game. Kilkenny, the National League champions, are doing likewise.

What has gone before in the championship – even the spirit lifting win over Limerick – won’t matter when the ball is thrown in. As Mr Cody might say “it’s all on the day, and either team is capable of beating the other”. You had better believe it!