THE absolute quality of all the teams in Division IA of the National Hurling League was everywhere to be seen when the running programme of games was announced, writes John Knox.
In Kilkenny it looked like the All-Ireland and National League champions had been given an especially difficult opening when they were scheduled to start in an All-Ireland final re-run against Galway, with arch rivals Tipperary next up.
Trying to pick up a victory on the road is never easy, but going to Salthill and then Semple Stadium looked especially difficult for Brian Cody’s troops. And with a visit to Cusack Park, Ennis, later down the line, easy options were nowhere to be found.
The degree of difficulty surrounding Sunday’s second League outing against Tipperary in Thurles has been heightened to by the fact that the Premier County flopped in the opening round when beaten by Cork.
Fair enough, Kilkenny bit the dust too against Galway, but at least they had the satisfaction of knowing they were good enough to be chasing the game right to the final whistle.
Tipp were virtually a beaten force against Cork at half-time, when they trailed by 0-2 to 0-17. They were eventually beaten by 12 points, and such was the disappointment of players and management that a backlash is guaranteed this weekend.
Easy options in Division IA? Forget about it. This is an ‘A’ class competition!
“There was very little consolation for us,” Tipperary manager, Eamon O’Shea admitted after the clattering received against Cork, who were flying. “We didn’t perform.”
O’Shea has been long enough around to know that opening games in the League can throw up such results when teams are still trying to get into the swing of things.
With Kilkenny next on the horizon, Tipp’s cause didn’t look particularly appealing.
It was likewise in Kilkenny after the reverse against Galway. A clash with Tipperary wouldn’t be what your friendly fixtures doctor would order, but then again, what could be better to help focus minds and get everyone worked up than such a demanding fixture?
Players and fans alike are looking forward to the game, be absolutely sure of that. Attendances to date at the hurling and football league matches have been better than usual, so if the weather holds, it might be a good idea to head to Thurles early.
The losers on Sunday, unless there is a draw, would have an awful lot of ground to make up if they are to secure a place in the semi-finals. But a certain run of results in Round 2 could change the outlook for most as well.
Early season hurling – endless possibilities always.
Kilkenny were their usual busy, busy selves against Galway. The concession of three goals during the first half – 3-4 to 0-10 – really hurt them. Like a boxer taking a heavy punch or two without hitting the deck, they recovered well from the opening two blasts, but it was the third one that did them and remained the difference at the finish.
Manager Brian Cody wasn’t unduly put out afterwards. Of course he was disappointed to lose. But the fundamentals were sound, with the players working and chasing hard.
Getting on with things
The touch and so on will improve the more the squad moves into the season.
The Cats will continue to labour without the likes of Henry Shefflin, T.J. Reid, Michael Rice et al, but they don’t continue to refer to those players. The media do that. The injured mplayers will be looked after behind the scenes.
Kilkenny play with the hand they have, and the squad on duty on Sunday won’t differ much from the one that did duty in Pearse Stadium. Kilkenny are getting on with things, viewing disappointment for some as an opportunity for others on the fringes to force their way into the reckoning.
Lester Ryan, who played a lot of hurling with Clara during their journey to All-Ireland club success at intermediate level, didn’t do his prospects any harm. Neither did Conor Fogarty.
That is exactly the response the selectors want from the squad as they all the time continue to challenge the players, the older ones as much as the new ones. Tipperary will present a huge challenge this time round. Rather than cower under it, Kilkenny will be inspired!