Proud Kilkenny captain Cillian Buckley
From a poor start and talk of relegation to a storming finish and league silverware.
Crisis in Kilkenny hurling? What crisis!
“It was a real challenge to get here after we’d played two games in the League and come away without any points,” said Cats captain Cillian Buckley in the aftermath of Sunday’s high-octane win over Tipperary.
“We were facing an uphill battle. To think that it’s ended with us winning the League title is brilliant. It’s testament to the management and players for acknowledging that we needed to step up.
“We did that, but we’re only in April,” he added by way of caution. “This is a great day and we’re ahead of the pack for now, but when the championship comes around we’ll all be back in the pot. We have a huge few weeks of work ahead of us to make sure we carry that momentum into the Leinster championship.”
That was symptomatic of Kilkenny hurling - one challenge down, now on to the next one. However, the Cats had a very different task on their hands after successive defeats at the start of the League left them flirting with relegation.
“We weren’t all that far off in the Cork and Clare games,” Buckley pointed out, reflecting on Kilkenny’s losses in the opening two rounds. “We lost both by three points (They lost to Cork by 1-24 to 0-24 and went down 2-18 to 1-18 against Clare).
“We made a slow start against Clare but other than that we were happy with how we were. We had a good preseason, the training and conditioning work had gone well but we said we didn’t want to just put in good performances - we wanted to win games.
“Now, we’ve won six games on the trot,” he added. “Winning is a habit and that’s what we wanted to get into the habit of doing. It was an uphill battle, but one we faced into. We came out on top - for now, anyway - but no doubt everyone will be gunning for us again.”
Games have come thick and fast - the weather is the only thing to have stopped the Cats in their tracks in recent weeks - but it’s been a welcome challenge for the players.
“That has taken concentration and some steel at times,” the Dicksboro man said. “Some weeks matches were on one day and then off the next, but it was a great experience.
“Management laid the plan down well and players responded to it. We want to be playing games and while they came thick and fast we came out on the right side of that schedule in the end. Being able to put that piece of silverware on the table makes the last few weeks all the more worthwhile.”
The run-in to the title wasn’t easy. Kilkenny’s big performance against Tipp came just a week after they got a massive test from Wexford.
“Wexford Park was a different test, just like Tipperary,” he said. “They have a new way of playing but that’s a challenge every team will face for the rest of the year. You go out and face new challenges. You have to adapt, take things on.
“Tipp had a squeeze on the game in the first half but we reshuffled,” he continued. “Once we got the goal in the second half we were on the crest of a wave and didn’t look back. It was a great performance.”
It’s not just Tipperary who have adapted their game; Kilkenny have altered things this year, implementing a short snappy game with some new players too.
“You adapt on the field,” was the captain’s explanation. “Possession has become as important as scores. We have huge ball players, hurlers who are confident on the ball.
“It’s something we take on ourselves out on the field,” said Buckley, one of four players to have started every game in Kilkenny’s League campaign (Paddy Deegan, Joey Holden and Walter Walsh are the other three). “There are times when the shorter ball is on but we can go direct too. The goal came from a long ball into Walter so it’s about mixing it up at times and playing what’s in front of you on the field.”
That goal, which lit the blue-touch paper to an explosive second half, was a super score.
“It was mentioned in the dressing-room that when we played Tipp here a few weeks ago we had to dig at it,” he said. “Goals were there to be had. I felt we threatened a bit in the first half, but maybe we didn’t have runners off the shoulder (of the attacking players). We had that in the second half but it helped that straight away Walter plucked the ball out of the sky - we know he has that capability - and set us on our way.”
What was most impressive was how Kilkenny kept at it after that. There was no let-up in their effort.
“We got a sniff of the win from that goal,” he said. “That’s what makes a good team - when you get ahead you take things from there.
“However Tipperary never let up,” he added. “It took serious concentration until the final whistle - another Tipp goal would have made for an ending you wouldn’t like to go through! To have the cushion was brilliant, but it’s all about making sure you keep your shoulder to the wheel when you get in front.”
The game had a championship feel to it, something which should stand the Cats in good stead for their next challenge.
“That’s exactly why you want to play in the business end of the League,” he said. “It’s these high-intensity games which test you. There was huge pressure out there, playing in front of a home crowd, and with all that goes on before the game (parade, etc) it felt like a championship game.
“It’s a great experience for some of the younger lads in the panel to have a game like that under their belts,” he finished. “Hopefully it will stand to them later in the year.”