IT’S NOT quite new ground, but the Kilkenny minor hurlers will find themselves in a strange position when they travel to Portlaoise to take on Dublin in the Leinster semi-final on Saturday (throw-in 3.15pm).
“It’s unusual for a Kilkenny team, but we’ll go into the game as underdogs,” said manager Adrian Ronan. “A lot of these guys were in the Dublin team that won the Leinster minor final and got to the All-Ireland final last year.”
But while Kilkenny might not be used to playing as challengers, they know plenty about the opposition.
“They have eight of the 2011 starting team and 16 from the panel. We’re in very similar positions,” he added.
Another positive is that Kilkenny have no injury worries coming into the game against the reigning provincial title holders (“At the minute we have a clean bill of health,” Ronan said) with the panel stepping up preparations in recent weeks.
“With Kieran’s College and Kilkenny CBS involved in the colleges championship we had just six training sessions to prepare for the Laois match with a full panel,” he said. “We had a very good last six weeks where we’ve enjoyed a good uninterrupted spell of training and challenge matches, but we have the Leaving Cert issue.
“Last year we were very young,” Ronan added. “We had 20 lads who were under-age for the following season, which meant we had just six Leaving Certs playing. This year we’re the opposite - 20 are on the age, with 14 doing their Leaving.
“At this stage the co-operation of the players and their parents has been great. Everyone has worked together to make sure we work as best we can.”
The minor championship is the one grade where practically all the players share match pressure with exam pressure.
“The points system wasn’t such an issue before, but given the economic climate we’re in exams are more important than ever,” he added.
“Maybe the GAA should look at the structure of the championship in terms of when it should and shouldn’t be played. However, every other county has the same issues - we’ll be offering no excuses.”
One benefit the panel do have in their possession is that many have the experience of playing in last year’s championship, where they reached the Leinster final but bowed out against Waterford in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
“The lads know what is expected of them and what is required,” Ronan said. “Unfortunately, they were hurt by last year - hopefully that will stand to us.
“We’re playing Dublin in a knockout match,” he added. “There is no second chance at this stage. It couldn’t be a bigger game coming so early in the championship.”
Saturday’s game will be Kilkenny’s second in Portlaoise, having beaten Laois there by 2-17 to 0-15 almost two months ago.
Conor Martin (Emeralds) was the scorer in chief that night, hitting 2-6 as the Cats held off the hosts in a tough battle.
“We had a good performance from a side which hadn’t been together that long,” Ronan said. “We did what we had to we do. There’s huge work going on in other counties and Laois are no different. They made it through to the other minor semi-final so they proved that.
“No matter who we play the expectation on a Kilkenny team is to be in a final every year,” he added. “We know what is expected of us.”
Saturday’s game will be a step up from the Laois game, with Ronan admitting that Dublin will provide a stern test.
“Most of those guys have experienced winning a Leinster title,” he said. “They also know what it’s like to lose an All-Ireland too. The challenge is huge for us - it couldn’t be a bigger task ahead of us but we’re lucky that we have a mature team which has a lot of character. That character will show on Saturday.”
And with the two counties also meeting in a senior decider on the same billing, Ronan’s side can give Kilkenny supporters something to cheer about early on.
“It’ll add to the occasion, but as much as we wish the seniors well our job is to get the day off to a good start.
“That’s what we want,” he said. “Get our result and then be able to enjoy the senior match.”