Colin Fennelly is working very hard to make up for missing the National League campaign
One thing was certain for Kilkenny ahead of their second game in the round robin Leinster senior hurling championship against Offaly - they needed to step up a gear in terms of intensity.
Looking back at the Dublin game the previous week, there were a number of factors that struck this writer.
First of all, for the first time in six games, Kilkenny played most of the game on Dublin’s terms.
It was the Blues who were bossing the physical exchanges, ruling the skies and were more tactically astute.
Which leads us on to the second observation.
Kilkenny were successful in the National League due to a number of things. In particular they seemed to be growing very comfortable playing against the sweeper system.
Therefore it was frustrating to watch Kilkenny’s puck-outs being struck high and constantly into the paw of a Dublin defender.
Kilkenny were again playing into the sweepers hand.
Now we didn't know whether Offaly would follow Dublin’s lead and implement a sweeper system until Sunday, but Kilkenny had to be ready for anything.
Looking at Offaly, it would be fair to assume that they would be coming to Nowlan Park full of confidence.
When the teams met during the National League, Offaly very nearly beat Kilkenny.
Only that Kilkenny were typical Kilkenny, and did what they did to Dublin by producing a big finish did they get through that sticky test.
This amazing ability of the Cats to hold on in games and edge past their rivals by the skin of their teeth is impossible to fathom; for others team to prepare for ahead of meeting them.
You are almost lured into it as a false sense of security is created. You spend 50, 60, minutes thinking: “We have them. There is no way they are going to come back from this”.
And then the sucker punch is delivered; swift, clean and decisive.
The opposition are left gasping for air as Kilkenny race away to the finish line.
One publication stated after the Kilkenny and Dublin game that teams would have to convert 85 to 90% of their scores to have any chance of overcoming Kilkenny.
That’s what Offaly needed to do. They needed to make sure every strike resulted in a flag being raised.
No let up, foot to the floor for 70 minutes.
The team selections were going to be crucial. With games coming thick and fast, management would need to be able rotate players in certain positions and to cope with injuries.
For Kilkenny, the effectiveness of Paul Murphy, Liam Blanchfield and Colin Fennelly against Dublin had to have given them a chance of claiming a place on the starting team.
It should make the battle for places that more interesting as the new players will be keen to add another championship start to their belt.
Offaly, knowing the calibre of the opposition, had to field their strongest possible team.
Which is probably why there were a number of changes prior to throw in on Sunday.
While Offaly made four changes, Kilkenny lost both James Maher and Walter Walsh to injury, meaning Lester Ryan and Liam Blanchfield got to start.
As is tradition, Kilkenny played against the wind in the first half. It was Offaly who got the first score straight off the bat with a point from Shane Kinsella.
Liam Blanchfield responded with a point after a flurry of wides from the hosts. The Bennettsbridge man had a very lively afternoon, and really showed his potential as a full forward.
While he did get a goal in the second half, in truth he could have found the net at least three more times. No problem, better the chance created than no chance at all.
Defences On Top
It was a fairly low scoring opening half. Both defences were on top.
Kilkenny’s passing of the ball was very impressive, and the Offaly players were struggling to break through on goal.
If there was anything that manager Brian Cody would have been frustrated about at half time, it would be the amount of wides that Kilkenny shot.
By the end of the game they had clocked up 21 wides.
In this new championship format, a place in the Leinster final could be decided on scoring difference, and it is important that you take your scores and be in a comfortable position when crunch time comes.
It was obvious if things were tight in the second half that Kilkenny had to take their chances.
The half time score was Kilkenny 1-10, Offaly 0-7.
Offaly, at times, looked to be on the verge of taking off and they looked dangerous. But they were not able to overcome Kilkenny’s relentlessness to overturn ball.
Another thing about this championship format that must be noted is that every game opens up the chance for different players to make a statement.
Last week it was the more established players that made a statement for Kilkenny. This week belonged to the younger players.
It must be a great source of joy to the Kilkenny management to watch the younger brigade mature with every game, because that is what they are doing.
Luke Scanlon, John Donnelly and Richie Leahy really made the difference when Offaly put the pressure on.
In particular, John Donnelly, who got a crucial point in the 63rd minute, manned up when the pressure was intense.
Offaly had gotten to within three points of the opposition thanks to a goal from Conor Mahon, and Kilkenny were struggling to keep them at arms length.
However, atypical of the home side, before Offaly could catch their next breath, Liam Blanchfield had goaled and Colin Fennelly added a point.
That was the story of the game. While Kilkenny were always in control, when they were backed into a corner, they came up with the goods.
The increase in intensity was also a welcome addition to their play.
Added to this, it was a big bonus getting the goals from Blanchfield and T.J. Reid in the first half. They might prove crucial in the weeks that follow.
Looking ahead, Kilkenny will not want to rest on their laurels next week as they make the long trip to Salthill to take on the All-Ireland champions Galway.
A tantalising prospect!
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