Kilkenny’s appearance in Semple Stadium on Sunday as part of the All-Ireland hurling quarter-final double-header may not have been expected, but it has brought a buzz to the championship which would otherwise not have been the case.
And no one will disagree that hurling needed a surprise or two to liven up what was looking like a predictable outcome, namely a Kilkenny versus Tipperary All-Ireland final.
Outside of Kilkenny, Galway’s Leinster final victory was greeted with a huge out-pouring of joy and excitement. Kilkenny supporters should not take umbrage as most people love to see the underdog get one over high-flying opponents.
Former Kerry football star, Darragh Ó Sé, writing in the Irish Times last week spoke of how it is now dawning on him how much the rest of the country supports the underdog when they are playing against multi-winning sides.
After attending the recent Munster senior football final in Limerick, Ó Sé popped into a local hostelry to watch the Leinster hurling final. “There were men in the pub from every county,” wrote the Kerryman. “What I couldn’t believe was every last one of them was shouting for Galway. And not just shouting for them but taking complete and utter joy in seeing Kilkenny getting a hammering. They were roaring and shouting and yahooing every time Galway scored.”
I wonder how many Limerick supporters in that pub would have been so vociferously supporting the Tribesmen had they known that Limerick would be Kilkenny’s next opponent?
The Treaty men will not have pleasant memories of their last championship outing against Kilkenny in the 2007 All-Ireland final. Five years later Limerick travel to Semple Stadium to play a Kilkenny side that is coming off a rare championship hammering.
Display was flawed
The big question on Noreside is how will Kilkenny respond to the Galway defeat. Everyone involved with the side accepts that many aspects of their Leinster final display were flawed and most un-Kilkenny like.
This happens to the best of teams in all sporting codes. How the players react in their next outing ultimately defines the character of the side.
The team’s performance against Galway rather than the result perhaps stung the Kilkenny players most of all. It was a rare off day when practically every player struggled against his immediate opponent.
The return to club action will have helped to rejuvenate the players. There would have been a strong emphasis in training, both last week and this week, on getting the players to refocus on the challenge from Limerick.
I do not imagine it was particularly difficult for Brian Cody to get his players back in a positive frame of mind. The vast majority are experienced individuals who understand that Limerick cannot be taken for granted.
Kilkenny, yet again, enter a major championship game with doubts hanging over the availability of some key players. Brian Hogan will be an immense loss.
The O’Loughlin’s player is the glue that keeps the defence together. He is the supreme athlete, physically imposing and dominant in the air. Against a fast-moving and strong Limerick attack, Kilkenny can ill afford to be without a man of his class.
Colin Fennelly failed to line out with his club recently, casting doubts over his availability. Fennelly brings great pace to the Kilkenny attack and his style is ideally suited against the current Limerick defence.
Could Brian Hogan’s absence open the door for John Tennyson to return to the heart of the defence? There is also the question of where to play Michael Fennelly.
Centrefield is his natural position, and a return to partner Michael Rice would be welcomed by Kilkenny supporters. Cillian Buckley, though, has given steady performances and is worthy of retention in the side.
Fennelly at centre-back
Another option is to put Michael Fennelly at centre-back. He has many similar characteristics to Hogan, but his selection, irrespective of where he might play, will ultimately depend on whether the Kilkenny selectors believe he has sufficiently recovered from his leg injury.
I don’t see Kilkenny underestimating the Limerick challenge. There are plenty of reasons why they should not!
The Shannonsiders should have won the Division 1B league title against Clare, while it took a late rally from Tipperary to defeat them in the0 Munster championship.
The Limerick performance that afternoon was really positive, but they panicked when Tipperary upped the momentum in the closing quarter, primarily through the inspirational play of substitute ‘Bonner’ Maher. Limerick’s qualifier game against Clare was another highly competitive contest against their close neighbours.
The Treaty men were unquestionably the better side on the day with their physicality a key factor.
There is a lot more to this current Limerick side, though, than its physicality. They have plenty of excellent hurlers and every Kilkenny player will need to be on top of his game if the Cats are to be victorious.
I expect Kilkenny to dictate the momentum of the game from the throw-in. They will be hoping for a few early scores to unsettle the Shannonsiders.
Kilkenny will need a good start to quickly erase the memories of the Galway game. There is nothing more appealing (well to Kilkenny supporters anyway) than a confident Kilkenny team in full flow.
Limerick will bring a strong work ethic and loads of enthusiasm to this quarter-final. They will respect, but not fear the Cats, and the longer they remain in the game the more confident the players will be that they can overcome the reigning All-Ireland champions.
Last year Kilkenny suffered a big defeat in the National League final, but retreated to Nowlan Park to refocus on the championship. It will have been a somewhat similar scenario this week and last week.
The players will be honest in assessing their own performances. I expect the collective responsibility of the side will ensure that we will see a very different Kilkenny in Semple Stadium on Sunday.
While no side, including Kilkenny, can look beyond the next game, the spectre of Tipperary waiting in the semi-final will surely be on the minds of Kilkenny supporters.
Limerick, if successful, could avoid Tipperary, depending on the result of the other quarter-final. That will not bother the Shannonsiders as a win over Kilkenny will give the team plenty of confidence if they make it as far as the semi-final.
The performance of Waterford referee Michael Wadding could be an important factor on Sunday. His refereeing style can, at times, be fussy and frustrating to the players.
Sunday’s encounter will have plenty of tough physical exchanges. Wadding could find himself under the spotlight.
Prior to the draw for the quarter-finals the common view from the broad hurling fraternity was ‘God Help whoever draws Kilkenny’!
The assumption is that Kilkenny can resume what most supporters feel is normal service. I believe they can, well sufficiently anyway to defeat the Shannonsiders!
There will be a backlash from Kilkenny, and while I do not believe for one moment that Limerick will roll over, I cannot see the Shannonsiders stopping Kilkenny from reaching yet another All-Ireland semi-final where some old foes await.