The players in the evolving Kilkenny hurling panel are giving the new Selection Committee a right good headache. Not to worry though - it’s all for the good.
The players are responding well to every challenge put before them, and such is the quality emerging that the selectors are going to have a bit of a headache sorting out the eventual panel.
“It is a good headache to have,” smiled selector/trainer, Michael Dempsey, after the team made up largely of young hopefuls bettered defending champions and Leinster championship holders, Dublin, in the Walsh Cup final in Croke Park.
The selectors used 28 players during the three match winning run to what was the county’s 19th success in the ’Cup. The run of success was a nice boost with a torrid test ahead on February 16 when the Cats open the defence of the National League against All-Ireland champions, Clare, in Ennis.
“All of the players we have used have acquitted themselves very well,” added Mr Dempsey, who has been part of the Kilkenny set-up for the past decade and more.
“We will go away and assess it all. In terms of places on the panel it is very competitive. The more competitive the environment is the better. The high the standard will lift everyone.
“Competition drives everyone on.”
The Walsh Cup campaign probably worked out better than Kilkenny thought it might, he admitted. The selectors - Mr Dempsey, Brian Cody, Derek Lyng and James McGarry - have been working off a fairly large panel.
“We had the opportunity to look at the majority of players, maybe not as many as we would liked, but that was not possible considering the number of players we have,” he continued. “It was nice to play the final in Croke Park, which is a different sort of pitch than we have been playing on in the last few games.
“We had a look at different players again. It gives us an opportunity to assess where players are. It is good to be winning. It is only February, but at the same time, winning is never a bad thing.
“A good run like this is nice for the younger players coming on to the panel,” he assured. “It is their attitude and their performance, even more than winning, that has been most pleasing. The attitude of the players in training and in the Walsh Cup has been very good. We couldn’t have asked for more.
“The only way to improve is to play these games; get your confidence and find out what the standard is like and apply yourself. Winning is great for the confidence. The better the teams you are playing the better it is for the players involved.”
With wins over Dublin and Galway in recent weeks, the Leinster champions of the past two seasons, things appear to be moving along nicely.
“The players attitude is excellent the way they are applying themselves,” Mr Dempsey continued. “You can’t look for much more at this stage. We have to realise that there are bigger battles ahead. The National League will be extremely competitive with the teams that are in Division IA.
“There are all serious games in it. While Dublin are up there with the top teams, a Walsh Cup final is probably not as competitive as a National League game. It is really when the National League starts that we will find out more about the players. That will be another step up for everyone.
“Obviously playing Clare in Ennis is going to be a serious challenge. Again, all we can look for is attitude and performance. If we get attitude and performance, then you have a great chance of winning matches.”
In real terms, what does attitude mean or entail?
“Attitude really is working for and playing for the team,” he replied. “That includes on and off the ball. You are a total team player. You have your own job, but then you cover for other fellows and you play for the team. You work flat out. We are getting that from all of the players.
“They are unselfish. They are making the runs. They are doing the chasing. They are trying to use the ball well. They are working extremely hard. You can’t ask for much more.”
With the competition in Division IA of the League so high, getting the balance right between trying to win matches and give new players a chance was tough.
“They are all serious games, and there won’t be much between teams,” the St Joseph’s clubman felt. “You are always trying to improve the panel and team. Again it goes back, if we get the performances right, in terms of what we are looking for on the pitch, then generally the scoreboard looks after itself.”
After the good showings in the Walsh Cup he admitted that players were “putting themselves up there to be on the panel against Clare, and to be in the starting XV. That is very good.
“It is the players who are driving things,” he added.
“Obviously management have a job to do but the real motivation has to come from within the players. They have to be the drivers. They have to take responsibility. Sport doesn’t work any other way.
“You hope they have the confidence, ambition and determination to drive it on and take that responsibility. Motivation is never an issue with Kilkenny players.
“Playing in Ennis against the All-Ireland champions is a huge step up from the Walsh Cup. We couldn’t have got much more out of the Walsh Cup. Now we move into the National League. We will have to be able to take a step up in class or we will be blown away by some of the teams.”
Clare, as All-Ireland champions, were the benchmark on where hurling was right now, he said. Playing them was the ultimate challenge.
“We find ourselves in the chasing pack,” he said. “It is a great challenge, and a great opportunity.”