Padraig Walsh is a vital man in the Kilkenny defence
The time for the ‘seconds out’ call is almost at hand and from this weekend the wonder that is the Leinster Round Robin series in the senior hurling championship will begin to unveil its delights, or otherwise.
More games, more excitement, more fun, different venues and, of course, more money has made up most of the advance storyline.
Let’s see how all this high octane action pans out with the players, who, after all are amateurs who will have to combine the demands of a day job with those of high end sport.
Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody, was spot on last week when he said the championship was very different to the National League action. The hits will be bigger and harder; consequently more demanding and they will be coming quicker too as super fit athletes let rip in a game that leaves no room for holding back.
Let’s not prejudge! We have to admit to being as excited as anyone about the possible prospects that will hopefully be prolonged from a Kilkenny point of view.
Again like the majority, we harbour serious concerns about the off, and Sunday’s meeting with Dublin in Parnell Park (2pm).
There is no real line of form with the Dubs to date, apart from a promising blast here and there in matches, but in front of a passionate home crowd on a tight pitch they view as advantageous, the dangers are obvious.
Remember, the best of Dublin - Cuala, the two in-a-row All-Ireland club champions - and the best of Kilkenny - Dicksboro - locked horns in Parnell Park in the Leinster club championship and the blues won at their ease.
It must be pointed out Cuala had a huge advantage in terms of experience, but their run would suggest Dublin hurling in general is in a good space.
Kilkenny, who will be chasing a seventh successive win on Sunday, have been full of surprises so far this season. The extent of the reshaping of the panel that prompted us to refer to ‘New Kilkenny’ all the time caught most, if not everyone, by surprise.
Then the speed of rebuilding a team/squad to win the National League was a surprise. When Kilkenny lost the two opening matches against Cork and Clare the doomsayers had a field day. The Cats would be out of the frame, possibly for years, was the chorus.
Messrs Cody, Dempsey, McGarry and Lyng had other ideas, and during a League campaign in which some didn’t appear to be sure of what direction they should take, Kilkenny were sure about their plan.
They wanted to win the League if they could!
And they did! And when they did, it suddenly appeared to dawn on some others that unwittingly they might have surrendered an advantage to the Cats. The habit of winning; the boost in self confidence winning brings were just some of the spin offs of the League success.
Now Kilkenny head into the championship, Round Robin or whatever, in rude good health with young players believing they can be winners, and older ones knowing they can. Not a bad way to be!
Last year the opening match in the championship brought a defeat against Wexford in Wexford Park. That was the first time since 1996 that Kilkenny lost their opening provincial tie.
Later Kilkenny recovered to beat Limerick in the Qualifiers, but they lost out to Waterford, who went all the way to the All-Ireland final, in Round 2.
On reflection, one felt the Wexford win over Kilkenny in the League quarter-finals threw the Noresiders. They didn’t appear to be as sure as they might have been travelling to Wexford Park for the championship.
The exercise of not naming the team for that match until shortly before the start gave off all the wrong vibes and threw all the advantages in Wexford’s direction.
Hence the pressure that piled up for clashes between the counties this season - the Walsh Cup final; Round 5 in the League and them the League semi-finals. Kilkenny won the series 3-1, only surrendering the Walsh Cup in a free taking shoot-out after extra time.
Some were beginning to think and suggest Wexford manager, Davy Fitzgerald, and his well orchestrated sweeper system had cracked the Cats. The Cats snarled back.
Of all the statements made during the League, the results in that series of matches shouted possibly the most serious message of all.
Kilkenny, who always had difficulty coping with the extra defender approach of opponents, found a way to disarm it and hit back sharply with their own version.
The reshape helped - Padraig Walsh at full-back; Cillian Buckley in front of him; T.J. Reid at No. 11 and Walter Walsh at full-forward, with the latter pair free to roam.
The spine of the team was sorted from the off, and talented new players like Richie Leahy, Conor Delaney, Sean Morrissey, James Maher, Martin Keoghan, John Donnelly, Pat Lyng, Luke Scanlon and Alan Murphy all stepped up to the mark when given their head during the League.
That was a bountiful crop to get from one League campaign.
The experienced Conor Fogarty regaining full fitness after illness added to the glad tiding as the League reached a climax.
Since then former Hurler of the Year, Richie Hogan, has resumed playing after a deadly serious back injury had sidelined him for the entire League, and former All-Stars, Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly, returned after serving with the Irish Army in South Lebanon to further boost the forces.
If Kilkenny were in a good place at the finish of the League, they are in an even better place now, panel wise. Pity that the St Patrick’s (Ballyragget) scoring machine, Kevin Kelly, is still injured (knee).
Were he available, ‘New Kilkenny’ would be really well off.
The new Dublin manager is Pat Gilroy, a former boss with the Dublin footballers when they won the All-Ireland in 2011. His plan is much the same as it was with the footballers - work your socks off and be disciplined.
He brought his two selectors from that football win with him and then added a big hurling hitter, Anthony Cunningham, the former Galway manager, to his coaching staff. Dublin certainly won’t be lacking in know-how on the sideline.
During the League campaign in Division IB results were very mixed as dozens of players were given game time. The regular goalie was Adam Nolan while Chris Crummey (24) was hand picked to be team captain.
Newcomer Donal Burke was entrusted with the free taking and experienced hands Conal Keaney, Danny Sutcliffe and Paul Ryan were enticed back into the fold.
The Cuala lads weren’t asked to play, but four of them - Cian O’Callaghan, Sean Moran, David Treacy and Jake Malone - have joined the squad in recent weeks.
The hope that class footballer and hurler, Con O’Callaghan, might throw-in his lot with the panel was merely that... hope.
Dublin sneaked into the League quarter-finals. They opened brilliantly against Tipperary and led by eight points after 11 minutes. By the 23rd minute it was all square. Tipp eventually won by 11 points.
The point of that mention is to highlight how high Dublin can raise their game. That early effort was the benchmark for their performances according to Anthony Cunningham.
The shape of the Kilkenny team? Brian Cody has always been loyal to the players who serve him well.
Consequently, don’t expect much if any change in defence from the League final. Conor Fogarty should come into the starting XV, possible in midfield with Leahy or Maher, with the other moving up front.
In attack there is every chance Richie Hogan will feature. At the minimum, he should make the match day squad.
Dublin in Parnell Park will take some beating. If Kilkenny win this one, and they can, the message to all observers will be crystal clear.
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