TJ Reid is the Kilkenny captain this season
After all the talk and wonder, what fans regard as the real season has arrived. It is championship time!
And unusually for Kilkenny in the modern age, they are not being heralded as one of the really strong contenders. The Cats will take their bow at Nowlan Park on Saturday (7pm) against Dublin in the Leinster senior hurling championship.
Only then, and only through the strength or otherwise of their performance will we get an insight into what Kilkenny will have to offer in championship 2019.
Brian Cody’s men go into battle without a serous cohort of proven heavy lifters - All-Star goalie, Eoin Murphy, scorer of four points against Dublin in last year’s championship; Joey Holden; last year’s captain Cillian Buckley, former Hurler of the Year Richie Hogan, Conor Delaney, who was shaping up as a fine full-back, James Maher and Robert Lennon.
Against that, Dublin manager Mattie Kenny will be without sturdy defender Cian O’Callaghan, Conal Keaney, who put fierce hardship on the Noresiders in Parnell Park last year, and Cuala’s Mark Shutte, winner of a Leinster senior hurling championship in 2013.
The backdrop to the clash! And while it is unfortunate that any player should miss any game, the match won’t be decided by those missing, but rather by those who will do duty.
And in Kilkenny that is the wonder. What will be the make-up of the team?
It is a long time since the county stood on the cusp of the championship with so little known about the possible shape of the team. We known Darren Brennan will start in goal and Richie Reid will be the reserve goalie.
Beyond that who will play where is a bit of a mystery. That is a follow on from a poor National League campaign, which, in another season, would have ended in relegation for the county. The injuries are, of course, an added complication.
When looking back on the League it must be remembered that the talented and well drilled Ballyhale Shamrocks players were out of reach as they sailed towards an All-Ireland club final win. The return of team captain, TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly - this time last year he was returning from the Lebanon - Adrian Mullen and so on is a huge boost.
Between Saturday and the last Round Robin match away to Wexford on June 15, Kilkenny will have to do enough to get into the top three teams or otherwise their season will be over.
“The target for every team is to finish in the top three and make the next phase,” the Dublin manager reminded at the championship launch. “Every game is critical. Nowlan Park is a difficult place to go and get a result.
“We are aware of the enormity of the challenge. All we can do is try and get our own performance right and see where that takes us.”
Dublin did a lot right during a strong League campaign that started in Division IB and ended in a 1-19 to 1-16 defeat against All-Ireland champions, Limerick, in the semi-finals, ironically in Nowlan Park. A big prize for them was a quarter-final win over Tipperary in Thurles.
“It can’t be a disadvantage,” Mr Kenny suggested when asked would the experience of playing Limerick in Nowlan Park be a help. “Every game takes on its own life. League form doesn’t always transfer to the championship, which is a different animal.
“You don’t know the true form of teams until the first round of the championship,” he added.
As a matter of interest, we wondered, was Kilkenny’s ‘escape’ against Dublin in Parnell Park last season when a late Liam Blanchfield goal stole a win mentioned to the squad?
“This management team have looked forward to the challenges of 2019. We didn’t dwell on the past,” he suggested. “We are looking forward to the challenges ahead and we prepare for them.”
Mr Kenny, who took over as boss from Pat Gilroy, who stepped down because of work commitments after serving for one season, said the League was used to build a style and system of play. The Dubs got a lot from the League and saw action into March.
Last week they lost to Cork (1-25 to 0-21) in a right good challenge match when Liam Rushe - another huge performer against Kilkenny last season - played really well at full-forward and Danny Sutcliffe was massive at centre-forward.
Kilkenny, you can be sure, will come out full of fire and intent. What is behind them is over and done with. They will be breathing fire.
Don’t be surprised if those from last year’s championship defence against Dublin - Paddy Deegan, Padraig Walsh and Enda Morrissey; Joey Holden would have been there too - are playing with, perhaps, Paul Murphy and Jason Cleere.
If that were the thinking it would have freed up Conor Fogarty for a role in midfield, but now that Holden is injured the Erin's Own man might have to go back into the defence. Richie Leahy looks a possibility in midfield.
Who knows, Brian Cody and fellow selectors, Michael Dempsey, James McGarry and Derek Lyng will go for a midfield role for Walter Walsh.
He has been tried there, and he produced big for his club a few times in that position, so it is a possibility.
Up front it will be interesting to see how Colin Fennelly is employed, as a orthodox full-forward or as used to huge effect by Shamrocks where his pace and power are utilised by creating space in front of goal.
We expect Fennelly to be joined up front by TJ Reid, Liam Blanchfield, John Donnelly, Billy Ryan, Walter Walsh (not in midfield), with young Adrian Mullen, Ger Aylward, Kevin Kelly and Martin Keoghan other real possibility.
Brian Cody was right when he lauded the Kilkenny panel. There is a team in there, and a good one too.
The challenge is for him and the selectors to put the shape on it.
Can Kilkenny win? Definitely!
Round 1 - May 11 in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny v Dublin (2pm)
Round 2 - May 19 in Netwatch Cullen Park, Carlow v Kilkenny (3pm)
Round 3 - May 26 and June 2 Kilkenny free
Round 4 - June 9 in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny v Galway (2pm)
Round 5 - June 15 in Innovate Wexford Park, Wexford v Kilkenny (7pm).
Leinster final in Croke Park on June 30.
For more on Kilkenny People sport read here.