A lot of effort going into helping Padraig Walsh master the full-back duties
There is huge interest out there and behind all the easy talk it appears many have a deep rooted secret hope that there might be a quick fix for Kilkenny.
Don’t bet on it!
This is hold the nerve time. We all have to wait and see how life unfolds.
A simplistic overview that may be, but life sometimes is only as complicated as we want make it.
Adapting to the new hurling reality in Kilkenny that the county is no longer the supreme powerhouse it was in the recent past hasn’t been easy.
Insisting the county has a fair stock of good hurlers is one thing, but that belief is a million miles from the reality of becoming National League, Leinster or All-Ireland winners.
Oh sure, we hear people admitting that the successful strike rate of recent times just couldn’t last. However, more often than not the caveat suggesting “if this or that happened” then things might change.
Of course that is a possibility, but people have to be realistic. Hurling is in a hugely fertile place right now.
There are contenders, a fair number of them... Galway, Waterford (look beyond recent results because manager Derek McGrath is open about the fact they are experimenting), Tipperary, Cork and maybe even bubbling Wexford and Clare, the latter pair who are the only unbeaten teams in Division 1A of the Allianz National League at the moment.
It is early days in a season that is full of new challenges for everyone. The reorganised season with a round robin system in Leinster and Munster and the All-Ireland final in August has managers trying things, plotting a different course through a season that will be shorter but more intense and draining on players.
Waterford and Tipperary are open about working on their extended panel right now; on getting more players ready for the fray long term. They accept the closeness of what will be fiercely competitive and thus physically draining matches in the championship will test squad strength much more than was ever the case before.
Kilkenny? They are no different in real terms. They are working on piecing together a new panel.
The main difference, however, is that others like Galway, Tipp and Waterford, for example, have greater and deeper experience at the core of their current working squads than the Cats do.
That used to be us, remember! We had the deepest well of talent. We can hear people saying, but we have this and that lad to come back into the reckoning. The names of former All-Stars Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly and former Hurlers of the Year, Richie Hogan and T.J. Reid will be mentioned.
And rightly so - individually and collectively they represent some talent - but Kilkenny can’t wait and hope. One felt there was an element of that last season, and it didn’t serve anyone any good.
The wonder surrounding Michael Fennelly’s fitness and ability to survive in the championship, and would Richie Hogan’s injury come right so he could let rip, just didn’t help the flow of things.
There were other happenings besides, like the surprise loss to Wexford in the League quarter-final that rocked the ship and unsettled Kilkenny.
Then when Padraig Walsh picked up an ankle injury on the cusp of the Leinster championship and was played against Wexford when without game time for weeks, it all went pear-shaped and left the county on the back foot.
One gets the impression now, either rightly or wrongly, that nothing like that will happen this season. It is just a feeling. We can’t put a finger on it, but it is there.
Experience shows chancing injured players generally doesn’t work. And this year, with high pressure, high demanding game packed on game, it certainly won’t work in the championship.
Kilkenny’s current reshaping of the squad goes beyond the bounds of the usual renovation, update, upgrade - whatever you want to class it. This time it is a rebuild.
Of the team that played against Clare in the last National League match, a mere five - Eoin Murphy, Joey Holden, Padraig Walsh, Cillian Buckley and Walter Walsh - played in a senior All-Ireland. Decent enough by any standard, bar Kilkenny’s measure.
One player in attack, Walter Walsh, figured on the last All-Ireland winning team of 2015.
That point alone highlights the serious change that has come about, been forced on Kilkenny.
Manager Brian Cody and selectors, Michael Dempsey, James McGarry and Derek Lyng have been bold with some of the things they tried. Defeats against Cork and Clare in the League came at the end of serious efforts by the team, and squad, with 23 players seeing game time already.
“Decent”, a word much beloved by Mr Cody, certainly caught the mood of the players, although one would suggest it under sold their efforts. The point is, the players are having a right good go.
There have been a few constants who have caught the eye, chief among them being team captain Cillian Buckley, along with goalie Eoin Murphy, Walter Walsh, Padraig Walsh too and Joey Holden.
The summary on the new arrivals is even better, with free-taker Alan Murphy, Martin Keoghan, Pat Lyng, John Donnelly, James Maher, Richie Leahy and Bill Sheehan all showing good promise. Joe Lyng turned in one smashing showing in the Walsh Cup too.
Things won’t work out for all of them in every match. That is part of the learning process, and people have to remember that.
The League is when new players show the best of what they have to offer. The selectors will make the judgment after that.
And the selectors, in the way they have constantly supported the players; in the sure way they employed the sweeper system against Wexford in the more competitive than expected Walsh Cup final; in the way they successfully reshaped the team when nine points down against Clare in the first half to get within an inch of saving the day have shown they have a fair idea on how to work the talent they have.
The afternoon against Clare, Ollie Walsh was robbed of his strength by a virus and just couldn’t perform. He was whipped off quickly. Decisiveness! That’s what its all about.
Off to Walsh Park
Kilkenny are heading to Walsh Park on Sunday (2pm) to face beaten All-Ireland finalists, Waterford in Round three of the League.
The pair are propping up the Division 1A table, with Kilkenny off the floor by virtue of a better scoring average.
Waterford boss Derek McGrath has openly admitted the change in championship structures has changed his approach to the League.
Wanting to win it doesn’t appear part of the equation. Consequently he is giving all 35 members of his squad playing time in the League.
That’s interesting in itself, a squad of 35.
He is giving the Munster and All-Ireland championships top priority. McGrath knows the League road, having sampled relegation, outright victory and being beaten in a final during his time in the hot seat.
He is looking at the bigger picture this season. And the championship is set to dominate the view.
We won’t know the Waterford team until later in the week. But with an All-Ireland final appearance behind Conor Gleeson, Noel Connors, Austin Gleeson, Tadhg de Burca, Michael Walsh et al now, they would have too much know-how for some of the younger Kilkenny brigade.
We could see young Bill Sheehan, for example, sitting this one out. It’s called player management.
Whichever county suffers a third defeat - unless there is a draw, of course - can expect the word relegation to crop up regularly in post-match talk. The season is drifting along; getting to the serious stuff.
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