Dublin can defy doubters and deliver again
Champions can defend Leinster title if they avoid a shoot-out with Kilkenny
Kilkenny’s Walter Walsh in action. Photograph: Cathal Noonan / Inpho
Reason #7,804 you’ve just gotta hand it to Brian Cody – he does what he says he will do. Or rather, he does not do what he says he will not do. When Keith Duggan interviewed him in these pages back in February, he held his hand up about last year’s league and admitted trying too hard to win it without spending enough of it trying to find new players. “It is something that won’t happen again,” he said.
Kilkenny have played three championship games so far in 2014, half the amount they ended up playing in 2013. He has started 22 different players, one more than he did in six games last year. He has used 26 different players, again one more than he did all last summer. The likelihood is that those totals will rise – the starters stats definitely will when (a), David Herity replaces the injured Eoin Murphy; and (b), that young Shefflin lad manages to catch the manager’s eye.
Flux has, of course, always been Cody’s friend and the restlessness with which he’s moved around his chess pieces in the past month is how he keeps standards high. Pádraig Walsh, Mark Kelly, Brian Kennedy, Joey Holden and Conor Fogarty would all have started the year needing to be convinced that a summer starting spot was attainable. The various struggles of Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, Richie Power and others to get in the side assured them it was so.
Whether or not we are any closer to nailing down Kilkenny’s best 15 is another matter and the collateral damage of the chopping and changing is bound to be found inside the heads of those who fall by the wayside. And since those heads belong to the younger generation – like Kennedy, like Kelly, like Walter Walsh – then the possibility arises of Cody being back where he started. He clearly began the year with the intention of building a defence that didn’t have to rely on the old JJ-Jackie-Tommy-Brian Hogan axis, but that’s pretty much what he went back to last weekend.
The likelihood is that it will keep changing – the defence would certainly need more pace in it if and when a Clare or a Cork has to be dealt with.
The Dublin side they face tomorrow could do with a bit more jet for its heels too, hence their desire to give Danny Sutcliffe every opportunity to make his return. As ever, though, it will be Conal Keaney and Ryan O’Dwyer who do the heavy lifting, with Alan McCrabbe and Dotsy O’Callaghan buzzing about around them. They need to make whatever possession they pick up count. Kilkenny scored 3-22 and 3-19 against Galway; Dublin have only ever posted a 28-point (or equivalent) total three times in championship under Daly.
One of those was in the Leinster final last year and it’s worth remembering that despite being laid out as underdogs, Dublin do come in here as defending champions. Their semi-final victory over Wexford was as professional an operation as Daly could have dreamed of. Away from home, against a fizzing young side on an upward curve, an early goal to overcome – all that and they still downright refused to be ambushed.
Dublin beat Kilkenny in the league this spring and took them after a replay in the championship last summer. It might only amount to three matches but it’s the longest unbeaten run any team in the country currently has against Kilkenny, going back to the 2012 Leinster semi-final.
That day walking into Portlaoise, Nicky English was asked how he thought the game would pan out. He looked at the sky, which had been leaking rain all afternoon and said “on a wet day, go with the better hurlers”. Back then there was no question which side he was talking about. If the forecasts hold, a similarly grey day awaits at Croke Park tomorrow. Is it still the case that Kilkenny have the better group of hurlers?
In his sixth season as manager, Daly doesn’t have to harangue them into playing with freedom any more. Can it be enough? Sure. Will it? Desperately hard to say. If it’s a shoot-out, you have to imagine Kilkenny will post too high a total for them to match. But if they can prevent it becoming one, they have the smarts and the ability to close it out. What the hell. Dublin to win.