Kilkenny captain, TJ Reid has been leading from the front
It is not doubling down on the loose general opinion or hinting at the waving of a white flag, but Kilkenny are up against it.
Yet, they are preparing to face MacCarthy Cup kings Limerick, the team of the moment, in the All-Ireland senior hurling championship semi-final in Croke Park on Saturday (6pm) in rude good health.
The championship dream was supposed to have crumbled the last day against fancied Cork in the quarter-finals. It didn’t. Quite the opposite.
Kilkenny put in a gritty, tailored and focussed performance that left people singing their praises afterwards, but, more importantly, shot self belief through the roof.
If two defeats in the Leinster championship against Galway and Wexford in the provincial final had hurt, the damage was short term.
The evidence from matches since that third round loss to Galway is that Kilkenny’s form is on the up and up.
Poor finishing hurt
That defeat was followed by a draw and then a loss in two matches against Wexford, the latter after the Cats did their own chances no good at all by lording it in the wides shoot-out by a whopping 12-3.
Importantly, that aspect of play was sorted against Cork.
Even better, the shape of the starting Kilkenny team was stronger, which in turn offered better flexibility when tweaking was required in mid-match.
After things were switched about with the introduction of the towering Walter Walsh at half-time the Cats proceeded to out-work, out-fox and dominate Cork for long periods, shooting eight points in-a-row at one stage.
That was fair going.
Good squads can grow to who knows what level during the testing heat of championships, any championship, soccer, rugby, even hockey as we saw with the brilliant Irish ladies in the World Cup last year.
And Kilkenny have done that over the past six weeks. The recent loss to Wexford was one of those things.
From a long way out it looked like a goal would decide the game. Wexford, and good luck to them, scored it. They won. Kilkenny lost.
The bounce back win against Cork restored belief throughout the county. The players believe they can win.
Fans, who were like the doubting Thomas before the last victory, now believe anything is possible.
Reality? Yes! Self delusion? No!
Remember, Limerick have suffered two defeats in this championship too - against Cork and Tipperary. That doesn’t necessarily make them vulnerable, but it shows they can be beaten.
The difference is that Limerick back up the talk about class with titles, All-Ireland, National League and Munster.
In the latter final a few weeks ago they avenged the earlier defeat by Tipperary, blasting to a scary 2-26 to 2-14 victory as they all but took the opposition asunder with a ferocious second half effort.
That is strong hurling Limerick of today... powerful, finely tuned, capable in the extreme.
They have shown that when it matters, under pressure in big games, they can perform, and perform big too.
Gillane danger man
Their man who can shoot out the lights is Aaron Gillane, who has already amassed 2-40.
Peter Casey (1-11) and Graeme Mulcahy (1-9) are other big scores, and mighty men elsewhere include Mike Casey, Declan Hannon, the Morrisseys’, Gearoid Hegarty and goalie Nicki Quaid.
Manager John Kiely appears to have moulded a group whose aim is to be more than one hit wonders.
The players have kept their eye on the ball since the wild excitement surrounding the county’s first win in the All-Ireland series in 45 years and have breezed through their duties.
Players with such focus and keenness won’t be taken easily, as we in Kilkenny know from the giants of the not too distant past who hoovered up so much silverware.
In recent championship battles there has been little or nothing between the counties.
Kilkenny won a qualifier in Nowlan Park in 2017 by three points. Limerick won the quarter-final meeting last year by two points.
That day the Cats were missing the injured Walter Walsh, and there was a late incident when a tackle on John Donnelly might have been called up as a foul. It wasn’t.
Limerick broke up the field and Tom Morrissey popped over a point that made a crucial difference.
We make the point for the purpose of highlighting how close Kilkenny were to Limerick 12 months ago, bearing in mind what the Shannonsiders went on to achieve afterwards.
Who has made the greater progress since?
Victories and the collection of titles would suggest Limerick, big time. Yet Kilkenny have made enough progress in the championship to suggest they have a chance, a real chance.
Okay, Limerick put them away with relative ease in the most recent meeting in the National League (2-18 to 0-15).
However, the Cats were missing their Ballyhale Shamrocks brigade, who were on their way to All-Ireland club success at the time.
That loss of talent was huge, bearing in mind three Shamrocks players head the Kilkenny scoring charts now - TJ Reid (5-64), Colin Fennelly (2-7), Adrian Mullen (1-9).
We all know Reid is a match winner, and Fennelly is definitely another if Kilkenny can engineer space for him to run at and take on defenders.
If he doesn’t score he will win frees. He is pacy, brave and strong…. a potential match winner.
The return of Richie Hogan to first team duty made a big difference the last day.
He improved the scoring potential of the attack, and at the same time, the important defensive responsibilities of this line. The second half arrival of Walter Walsh kicked things on too.
Kilkenny are coming right at the right time.
And right now, against Limerick, is the ultimate test because they will be sharing the ring with the best.
The last day Kilkenny had a well thought out game plan to curb Cork’s running game. Manager Brian Cody and selectors, Michael Dempsey, James McGarry and Derek Lyng had the players ultra alert on all restarts, puck-outs, line balls, frees and so on.
There were no easy possessions for the opposition.
At different times John Donnelly and Conor Fogarty were employed in containment roles that worked well for the good of the team.
The defence was a bit ragged and rushed at times, but against terrific players like Pat Horgan and Alan Cadogan you can expect that sometimes.
On High Alert
The defence will have to be on high alert again.
Overall though, that quarter-final effort was huge. It lifted the hearts of players and followers alike.
For that reason it is hard to see the selectors straying too far from the group of players who did duty against Cork, with Hogan and Walsh in from the start.
That would probably leave Cillian Buckley, who has yet to gain the sharpness required at this late stages of the championship after months of battling injury, on the outside.
Kilkenny people know their hurling. They appreciate the excellence of Limerick, and respect them for what they have achieved.
They also know that Kilkenny in the championship are a different animal and they have a good chance against anyone, Limerick included.
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