Kilkenny look tired but not in full bloom crisis just yet
Dublin will push the Cats but I still expect them to edge it
Nobody gave Dublin a chance in the run up to last Sunday’s draw in Portlaoise. Having been well beaten by Tipperary in the league semi-final they needed a replay to see off Wexford.
Thing is, now they have three serious, championship intensity games under their belt. I think they will improve again this evening. Nor do I envisage the straightforward Kilkenny backlash.
I thought before last Sunday that Dublin would stay with them and perform well enough to restore some pride after the 2012 season.
From the outside the logic behind that Dublin performance might not make sense but from comments afterwards by both players and management it was apparent that they expected this performance from themselves.
Anthony Daly hasn’t overhauled the system but they have been honing it against decent opposition for three consecutive weeks.
The beauty of the Wexford games was that it gave them a chance to work out the kinks in a match environment after that heavy defeat to Tipp.
The draw in Wexford Park was key. They looked under serious pressure at that stage, and unable to rediscover the form that had made them a serious prospect in 2011.
The replay in Parnell Park, and most important of all the victory, brought them back to O’Moore Park 12 months after that horrendous beating by Kilkenny with restored confidence. To have won narrowly in Wexford Park might have masked some problems that were solved by the time Kilkenny came at them last Sunday.
They were 10-point underdogs with the bookies and that, for serious county hurlers, would be interpreted as insulting, especially given that many expected them to overcome Kilkenny a year previously. They knew their reputations were on the line.
So, Dublin were ready for Kilkenny but, seemingly, Kilkenny were not ready for Dublin. Certainly not to the levels of motivation we saw in Nowlan Park for the league final. That was a huge challenge for them.
The fear of watching Tipp collect a trophy in their own backyard lifted the intensity of every player. That, understandably, wasn’t evident in Portlaoise. Maybe the league final, similar to the Dublin performance last year, sapped some of their energy. They were sluggish in the opening exchanges against Offaly and throughout the Dublin game.
The four goals they leaked against Offaly was an obvious concern but it was the general manner of their play that would have had Daly and Richie Stakelum seeing a chance for Dublin.
Kilkenny’s usual dominance was not visible last week, they seemed uncomfortable away from the glare of the main spotlight. They weren’t in a good place and didn’t hurl with their normal assurance. Whether that can be righted within six days I don’t know but flicking a switch mid-championship, while they’ve done it before, is not something that happens easily.
More players will have to drag them into the typical Kilkenny manner of hurling. Henry Shefflin and Michael Fennelly can’t do it tonight. Last Sunday they sleep walked into a fixture they brought fire and brimstone to last year.
Looking back at the match, TJ Reid and the outstanding Walter Walsh saved them when so many others failed to hurl anywhere near their high summer standards.
That’s two poor showings in two championship outings. Why is that? There are variables. Shefflin is their driving force still, clearly. Against Offaly they got a miserable start. Against Dublin the wind made it difficult to hurl. Such conditions mean you only get half the time to win the match because you are either defending it or playing with it at your back. It suits the underdog.
The Shefflin factor remains important. Not only the guarantee of ball he wins and scores he takes from play, but his calming influence on others around him in the forward line.
Fennelly also brings a power through midfield. The Kilkenny forwards didn’t come under the microscope after the league final because of Fennelly’s performance that day. Besides Walsh’s excellent 1-4 and 0-2 from Richie Hogan in the first half, no other starting forward scored from open play against Dublin.
There is the argument that Kilkenny were looking further down the line but, for me, Cody’s team always takes it one game at a time. However, maybe we are seeing the evidence of a change in their training regime from last year after their struggles in the Leinster final against Galway.
Either way, they look a fatigued team at the moment. Cody has made changes, one enforced, but Jackie Tyrrell is a bonus as he calls a lot of the shots in defence but Paul Murphy’s loss is a counter weight.
TJ Reid’s return from injury and presence from the start should guarantee more scores from play. That means Lester Ryan, having been unable to transfer his league form into the summer, gets replaced by Cillian Buckley in midfield beside Michael Rice.
A marked improvement is needed from Eoin Larkin and Richie Power because Walsh won’t be able to beat Dublin on his own.
I expect Dublin to push them again. Their fourth game in a row will be welcome as hurlers want to be playing matches. They are in a groove. I don’t expect major improvements from Kilkenny but I do expect more intensity and a greater pattern of scorers.
The hardest working 70 minute team performance will prevail. We will know a lot more about the current state of Kilkenny after tonight. No crisis yet though, I still think they’ll edge it.