Kilkenny look good enough to make League final

The debate regarding the National Hurling League structures will be set aside for at least the next couple of weeks as the semi-finals and finals are down for decision, writes Nickey Brennan.

The debate regarding the National Hurling League structures will be set aside for at least the next couple of weeks as the semi-finals and finals are down for decision, writes Nickey Brennan.

Three of the four teams playing in Semple Stadium on Sunday are clearly ahead of the rest at this time. It is fair to assume that they will also be involved when the concluding stages of the 2013 championship is reached in a couple of months.

Kilkenny, Galway and Tipperary all targeted a League semi-final spot. Mind you, given the structure of Division 1A, it was not until the final series of games that the trio were guaranteed a visit to Thurles.

The fourth semi-finalist, Dublin, will be delighted to be back in Semple Stadium after their one point win over Limerick in the recent Division 1B final.

Playing Tipperary is a bonus for Dublin. The side took an alarming backward step in 2012 and they would appear to have some way to go to scale the heights of 2011.

Dublin’s opponents, Tipperary, experienced an indifferent League. A big loss to Cork in their opening round game hinted at a major challenge ahead for new manager Eamonn O’Shea.

But when neighbours and great rivals Kilkenny came to Thurles for the next game Tipperary won, albeit by a single point. More importantly the confidence in the team was restored.

Best display

Tipperary’s demolition of Galway in round 3 was the side’s best display for a long time. It had the Premier County buzzing again and dreaming of even better days ahead.

Waterford brought a halt to Tipperary’s momentum in Walsh Park, but Clare was no match for Tipp in the final round. Tipperary has unearthed a couple of exciting young players, but it has been the form of Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett that has given followers most satisfaction.

Following its Division 1B success a meeting with Tipperary is now the perfect challenge for Anthony Daly and his Dublin players. The Dubs are delighted to be back in Division 1A, but right now preparing for a difficult upcoming Leinster championship is Daly’s priority.

The minimum Dublin must deliver is a competitive challenge to their hosts as anything less will leave the side deflated for the championship. Tipperary’s topsy turvey form since the start of the League does give the Metropolitans a chance, but anything other than a Tipperary victory would be a surprise.

Main attraction

The second semi-final between Kilkenny and Galway is the main attraction. That is hardly surprising given the number of times they have met over recent years.

Sunday’s clash will be every bit as competitive as those previous encounters, perhaps even more so. Galway has the St Thomas contingent back and will be at full strength. The Westerners will be eager to claim the scalp of its great rival in advance of the championship.

Despite qualifying for the semi-final, I am not sure if Galway learned a lot from its five League outings. Centre-back remains a problematic spot and I have yet to be convinced by the Galway attack.

Kilkenny’s League form has also been indifferent. Two early losses left the county on the brink of elimination, but a big win over Waterford got the Cats back on track.

Injuries to some established players have given the team mentors an opportunity to try out the emerging talent. And they would not have been disappointed with their performances.

Eoin Murphy is edging towards making the goalkeeping spot his own. He is looking more confident with every game. Conor Fogarty has blossomed into a top class defender and has benefited from an extended run in the side.

Stepped up

Lester Ryan has been a revelation at midfield where he brings great energy and work rate to the position. Padraig Walsh has also shown in his League outings that he is well able to step up to the rigours of the senior grade.

Kilkenny’s improved League performances in recent weeks are also down to the form of the longer established players. These remarkable sportsmen continue to amaze us with their boundless determination to remain at the top.

Every game presents a new challenge and Sunday’s is one more such occasion. The team’s talisman Henry Shefflin remains absent and worryingly, his return may be longer than originally expected. Thankfully others have stepped up to the plate, in his absence, to lead by example.

Whatever the result, the Westerners will know they have been involved in a highly competitive game. A Kilkenny victory is not certain, but it is likely.