Kilkenny captain, Cillian Buckley has come to the fore to lead the team
The new leaders who were the big drivers when ‘new Kilkenny’ stormed to a surprise victory in the Allianz National Hurling League were a younger brigade than is normally the case.
While usually teams are led by experienced ‘thirty somethings’, in ‘new Kilkenny’s’ case the defining leadership was provided by goalie Eoin Murphy (26), Padraig Walsh (26), Joey Holden (26), Walter Walsh (26) and team captain, Cillian Buckley (26).
The elder, if you like, was the free scoring T.J. Reid, who at 30 years of age was the oldest of the core crew who helped guide and shape a batch of new recruits into a winning unit.
Back in contention
The likelihood is that big winners and well walked players like Richie Hogan (29), Paul Murphy (29) and Colin Fennelly (29) will be back in contention to add depth to the squad for the Leinster senior hurling championship when the Cats open against Dublin in Parnell Park on Sunday week.
“This year more than ever the depth and strength of the panel will be vital,” insisted Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody, when he looked at the big challenge ahead at the official launch of the Leinster championship.
The Noresiders, who made an early exit from the championship last season and surprisingly didn’t feature in a game in Croke Park for the first time in ages, head out on the journey with the badge of NHL champions on their lapels.
Cody expressed his delighted at the way the squad progressed during the League. After losing the opening two games against Cork and Clare, the players then put an unbeaten run of six matches together.
“The leaders were crucial to everything we achieved,” Cody insisted.
“The finish to the League was very strong, and the players deserve every credit,” he said in reference to an away semi-final win over Wexford and victory in the final over Tipperary. “The reality was there was a huge amount of inexperience on the field.
“I suppose what I was most happy with was the level at which the inexperienced players performed. Also, the genuineness and leadership shown by the experienced players, and the role they took on.
“The response of the panel was huge. Different players came in on different days and did very good jobs. It was always a very good panel performance.
“Everyone played their part. Everyone did their job.”
After missing some of the action early on, T.J. Reid made an explosive return and registered double figure scores in virtually every game. T.J. was playing to a level his immense talent demanded, according to the boss.
“I have said it already, T.J. is playing at the level he is at,” said the man who will lead the county into his 20th championship; chasing his 16th provincial and 12th All-Ireland titles.
“He is a terrific hurler. Everyone knows that. His free taking has been a huge element to the whole thing.
“His overall play has been very consistent, very, very good. Everyone else as well. He was one of the experienced players leading. Cillian (Buckley) at centre-back; Padraig (Walsh) at full-back. You can go through all the lads.
“All the lads with experience did well. Then lads who had never played before came in and did well also. They developed naturally. They came into a team that included very experienced players, and they developed as they moved along.
“The leaders realised the importance of stepping up and playing at the level they are capable of playing at. Everyone is saying they have stepped up. But they could only step up if they were able to.
“They are quality players,” was his all embracing verdict.
“Any player could ease along and play away and be just playing, or you could drive on and be the best player you are capable of being. That is what the lads are doing.
“ What else should you do? They want to be the very best they can be, which is a terrific quality in any person.”
Kilkenny face an intense four game programme in what will be an ultra demanding five week period (May 13, 20 and 27 and June 9) in the Leinster Round Robin series.
The experience will be totally new for everyone, and the dread of injury will be ever present.
“For every county that will play a huge part of the challenge ahead,” Cody said when one expressed concern about the possible risk of injury to players.
“If a player injures an ankle or tweaks a hamstring or something in the first game, there is potential to miss all the games.
“That is huge,” the James Stephens clubman insisted. “That could be one, two or three players. Who knows?
“That is not just for ourselves, but for any team. The strength of the panel is going to be massively tested. We placed a huge emphasis on widening the panel and getting as many players as possible game time in the League.
“You will always have 15 players on the field, but your panel is being weakened when you don’t have everyone available.”
Virtually all the training is done now. The short time between games will be used to rest and recuperate.
Kilkenny have been in training with an extended squad since late November because there was an early start to the Walsh Cup and then the League.
“Physically we are in decent shape. We are happy from that point of view,” the manager insisted.
Dublin in the opening game on a tight Parnell Park pitch on Sunday week (the pitch measures 141x82m as against Nowlan Park which is 145x88m) will be a ferocious test.
The venue won’t be up for discussion as far as Kilkenny are concerned.
“Anything can get into the players heads if you let it, if you talk too much about it,” was Cody’s response when one suggested the dimensions of the pitch could add a degree of difficulty to the challenge.
“I never worry about where we are playing to be honest,” he continued. “The League final was in Nowlan Park.
“I was delighted it was in Nowlan Park for a variety of reasons, including for the people of Kilkenny, the business of the city and everything else.
“Obviously it is a terrific pitch. There are not too many like it as far as I am concerned.
Ready for Parnell Park
“If the match had been in Thurles it wouldn’t have been much different. Thurles is a great venue too. I don’t think it would have lessened our chances of winning.
“We are going to Parnell Park. That is grand. We will play the match in Parnell Park. It could be in Croke Park. It could be in Kilkenny. It is not.
“I have no problem with Parnell Park. I do know that we have always found it difficult to beat Dublin in Parnell Park, but we have lost big matches to Dublin in Croke Park, Nowlan Park, Portlaoise and so on.
“It is a question of getting yourself right and playing the game. The pitch will be the same for both teams,” he insisted.
Kilkenny’s Leinster SH championship programme is:
Round 1 - Dublin v Kilkenny in Parnell Park, May 13.
Round 2 - Kilkenny v Offaly in Nowlan Park, May 20.
Round 3 - Galway v Kilkenny in Pearse Stadium, May 27.
Round 4 - A bye.
Round 5 - Kilkenny v Wexford in Nowlan Park, June 9.
The final will be contested by the two teams finishing top of the table on July 1 in Croke Park.