Two weeks and counting. Two weeks until Wexford Park, assuming Laois don’t throw a spanner in the works in the meantime.
The place – still assuming no spanner — will be hopping.
It’ll be noisy and expectant and full of colour. (Award yourself a point for every mention of “cauldron-like atmosphere” you see or hear between now and then). A potential Wexford/ Kilkenny Leinster semi-final will be an event and an occasion in a way that Leinster semi-finals all too rarely are.
Just one thing. The identity of the Kilkenny team for the county’s championship opener.
Who’ll be on it? Who’ll be off it? Who’ll be the subs most likely to be sprung in the event of an emergency and how likely are they to save the day if required?
Your guess is as good as mine. As long as Brian Cody knows more than we do, however, all is not lost.
But there, as per the Bard, is the rub. Kilkenny’s National League campaign was unsatisfactory in so many silly little ways that it’ll be no wonder if the manager isn’t as sure of his hand as he’d wish to be.
Think of what Cody would have been looking forward to at the beginning of the league.
Ger Aylward, an All Star in 2015 and badly missed last summer, would be returning. John Walsh, one of the stars of Kilkenny’s All Ireland intermediate triumph and the hero of the 2014 minor final, would be getting a shot at the big time.
James Maher would be making a welcome comeback from the injury that kept him out of the championship following the pleasing impression he’d made in the National League. Kevin Kelly, who hit 1-2 against Tipperary in September, would have the opportunity to kick on. It was easy to envisage Richie Leahy and Pat Lyng being in with a shout too.
Things didn’t quite turn out that way. In fact, they didn’t turn out that way at all. Here goes.
Aylward: didn’t see a single minute of action during the league.
Maher: came on in the second half against Clare, Tipperary and Cork for a total of 57 minutes.
Leahy: came on against Waterford, started against Clare and Cork, scored three points in the latter fixture but went off with a hamstring injury six minutes from the end and didn’t feature thereafter.
Lyng: carried off injured against Waterford and his only other participation was 19 minutes as a sub against Dublin.
Kelly: substituted against Clare and didn’t feature thereafter.
Kilkenny badly needed a couple of members of that sextet to put their hands up during the league. Through a variety of reasons, the main one being sheer old-fashioned ill luck, none did.
It doesn’t mean a couple – or more – of them won’t do so over the course of the next few years. But what it does mean is that none of them experienced a suitable pre-championship grounding and that if Cody plunges any of them in at the deep end on June 10 or subsequently he’ll do so with his fingers crossed.
That wasn’t all of it. Conor O’Shea starting the first five games but doing a hamstring against Dublin and missing the Wexford match. Padraig Walsh’s heel injury. As for Michael Fennelly, let’s take Basil Fawlty’s advice and refrain from mentioning the war.
A pity, incidentally, that nothing will come of Prince Charles’s valiant last-ditch attempt to make the panel. His grip may not please the purists but he does have a fair belt on a sliotar. All that polo, no doubt.
It’s all scarily reminiscent of 2013, when Kilkenny were riddled by injuries from the start of the season, lost to Dublin in the provincial semi-final and stumbled on from match to match thereafter. Their gameness and spirit wasn’t in question but the flesh was weak and when Cork beat them in the All Ireland quarter-final it was little short of a mercy killing.
Granted, a degree of creative uncertainty is always desirable. Hence the Cody mantra that Kilkenny are permanently in transition and that that’s the way it should be. Constant flux, once it’s managed properly, keeps everyone on their toes, the management included.
But right now the team is being overhauled completely and stability – or the lack thereof – is the issue. The team taken apart by Tipperary last September was the weakest stripey iteration to reach an All Ireland final since 2004, or maybe even 1998.
At the moment Kilkenny hurling is in much the same place it was in the late 1980s. The car isn’t moving as smoothly as it was a few years back.
New parts and new petrol are acutely needed. Back then fresh momentum arrived in the form of an injection of youthful talent from Brendan O’Sullivan’s All Ireland-winning minor outfit of 1988: Ronan, Carey, Pat O’Neill et al. Soon, Kilkenny were back winning senior titles. QED.
What happens to Cody’s troops on June 10 will matter. What becomes of the Kilkenny minor and under-21 teams this summer will matter far more.
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