Climb aboard folks - the League train is about to head off

John Knox

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John Knox

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@kilkennypeoplesport

Climb aboard folks - the League train is about to head off

Conor Fogarty (Erin's Own) captained Kilkenny in their first game of the season against Wexford

What course defending champions, Kilkenny, or indeed any other county will take through the Allianz National Hurling League this season is impossible to know.
The second most important hurling competition in the GAA will commence this weekend.
Kilkenny will entertain Cork in Nowlan Park (2pm).
However, with Fitzgibbon Cup matches drawing on players and Kilkenny having two teams involved in All-Ireland club championships - Ballyhale Shamrocks and Dunnamaggin - your guess is as good as mine concerning the possible shape of Sunday’s team.
Also, this year there won't be any relegation involved in the League.
That throws the possibility open for managers to try out as many players as they like knowing there won’t be a price to be paid if results go pear-shaped.
And with the GAA still reviewing whether or not the League winners will get the bonus of a trip to Sydney at the end of the year to play an exhibition match, as Kilkenny did in November in the Wild Geese tournament, a genuine glamour element for the players has been robbed from the competition.
The thinking of some managers in last year’s League was influenced by the unknown quantity that was the then upcoming Round Robin provincial championship series.
Now that all have experience of the demands of the Round Robin games, some counties are sure to be thinking ‘Championship before League’ big time. There is absolutely no doubt about that.
The usual refrain from Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody, is that the county wants to win as many games as possible, and the title also, if possible.
He is virtually one of a kind who is prepared to go on the record and state the intention to win the competition. Regularly quotes like “it is only the League” pepper conversations with managers, thereby confirming they are not fully committed.
Real business
If all were thinking real business - we know this is a different matter entirely - then they would be thinking League. Winning it was worth over €258,000 - €183,566 (League share) plus €74,560 (season tickets) - to Kilkenny in 2108.
That is some wad of money. It represents the other side of League business, but team shape and results are what most interest fans.
We thought the recent Walsh Cup match against Wexford might give an inkling into how Messrs Cody, Michael Dempsey, Derek Lyng and James McGarry were thinking. It didn't.
Defections cut the panel to the bare bones. Little was learned.
We know Padraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley won't be involved this weekend, and it might be a fair bit longer. Walsh will be back earlier than Buckley, by all accounts.
So, in the absence of the two central defenders from 2018, who will man the lead roles in defence?
With Walsh out of the equation, the selectors will be forced to think afresh on the No. 3 spot.
There are contenders, Huw Lawlor and Robert Lennon, and why not Conor Delaney?
One has been waiting a while to see Delaney tried in the role, seeing that he used to play there with his club. It didn't happen.
It wasn't likely to happen either while Walsh was available, but things are different now.
And with the threat of relegation gone, any player tried in any position can let go with more freedom than would normally be the case.
Delaney, Paddy Deegan and Enda Morrissey did well enough as the half-back trio against Wexford, but things are moving up a notch now. One would suggest it would be easier build a line on the 40 than get a sure and dependable full-back line.
On his return one would love to see Padraig Walsh as a No. 6. Between club and county he is here and there, but one would like to see what he would bring to a position that demands a player with real edge.
Attack beefed up
Conor Fogarty will, most like feature at midfield, but the attack that faced Wexford will have to be beefed up.
The loss of big score getter and new Kilkenny captain, TJ Reid will be massive, but Walter Walsh, Richie Hogan and Ger Aylward have the ability to improve things.
In the long run, when TJ and Colin Fennelly return, the prospects for the attack look fair enough but getting results during the short handed period will be difficult.
This all adds to the intrigue surrounding the League 2019.
Certainly, out there on the streets the huge interest is matched only by the wonder.
There is a body of opinion that thinks Kilkenny are ready to kick on from last season, when the League was won and the county was within an ace of beating eventual All-Ireland champions Limerick in the championship.
One would describe that as the ‘Cody element’, and the belief that the man can work wonders. He certainly has the magic touch, but people might want to temper expectations.
Dublin Escape
Remember the near thing against Dublin in the championship? Kilkenny escaped in Parnell Park.
Small things can change a season. And nothing rolls on with any certainty from one season to the next.
Hats off to the fans, Kilkenny are one the best supported teams in the country.
Their Leinster Round Robin tie with Galway last year, admittedly the first Leinster senior game in Salthill, produced the biggest gate of the entire series - €248,235.
The same pair attracted a gate of €522,097 for the Leinster final replay in Thurles.
The Cats are big business, hurling and otherwise!
Kilkenny people love their hurling, hence the near insatiable appetite about teams, the welfare, form and so of players.
One believes absolutely that part of the reason Kilkenny won the National League last year was because they were more interested in it than anyone else.
Others were distracted by the unknown of the Round Robin series. That distraction is there again.
Remember, the Cats lost their opening two games in 2018 and goalie Eoin Murphy was a wonder performer throughout. He worked over time and saved many day.
What can we say? Climb aboard, but remember, we could all be in for a bumpy ride again.

For more on Kilkenny People sport read here.