Dublin taking early season more seriously than most but face strong Kilkenny test

Mattie Kenny’s outfit goes hunting for a first win over Brian Cody’s Kilkenny in seven years

On Saturday evening in Parnell Park, Dublin come face-to-face with their most exacting rivals. Over the past decade when the county rediscovered a measure of top-level success, Kilkenny were still winning All-Irelands and what success Dublin had was all the more valued, including wins against Brian Cody's team.

Back in the heyday of Anthony Daly’s time as manager, Dublin beat Kilkenny in the 2011 league final to win the title for the first time since 1939.

Two years later, as they progressed to a first Leinster championship in 52 years, part of the journey was a replayed semi-final win over the then All-Ireland champions – another big interval bridged, all the way back to 1943 for the previous championship win over Kilkenny.

Those days are gone in that Kilkenny haven’t won the Liam MacCarthy in seven years and Dublin haven’t beaten them over the same period even though they have come close on occasion.

So far this year, progress has been good. Manager Mattie Kenny undoubtedly took the pre-season Walsh Cup more seriously than most but then again, it showed. He mightn't have pushed the boat out in terms of looking for new players but the concept of momentum was worth more.

Big wins over Galway and in the final, Wexford, may have carried an asterisk in terms of respective team selections but Dublin's attitude was that the Walsh Cup roll of honour has no asterisks and winning the final by 16 points carried them into the league campaign buoyant with an unbeaten start.

Kilkenny, though, have proved unmoveable in more recent years, winning the past four league matches plus the six championship matches since 2013.

Gary Maguire played for Dublin during Daly's tenure, winning both league and Leinster titles as well as an All Star. He believes from his own career that Kilkenny target teams they feel are posing a threat.

"It's all about championship," he says. "Kilkenny will want to keep Dublin down and in recent times they have succeeded. Dublin haven't been able to get over the line even though they've come close. With Brian Cody every game is a contest and at the time Dublin had had some under-age success and Kilkenny would not have wanted us to get any more of leg up."

Fate hasn’t been kind. There was the last-minute goal in 2018 to win the championship round-robin match between the counties in Parnell Park. Two years ago during the winter championship, Dublin nearly completed an extraordinary turnaround when 16 points behind but ended up losing by a point.

Manager Mattie Kenny was all set to have a cut in last year’s Leinster final but on the day lost four frontline players to a Covid test. Shortly into the match, influential full-back Eoghan O’Donnell got injured. They remained in touch for three-quarters of an hour but fell away by the end.

Maguire says that the benefits of beating Kilkenny at any stage are obvious for opponents.

"It's become a huge source of confidence for teams, beating Kilkenny whether or not they're winning All-Irelands. When Limerick finally got over the line against them in 2018 they went on to win the All-Ireland. Dublin would be no different in that respect. When I was playing it was a huge breakthrough to beat them."

This season has seen definite improvement in Dublin, especially amongst middle-generation players like Conor Burke, Fergal Whitely and Riain McBride. Can that improvement last and sustain them into the championship?

There are also players to come back, like former All Star Liam Rushe, Daire Grey and Shane Barrett.

There are reservations that Dublin are maybe going too well for time of year but it’s not believed that their training programmes are that much ahead of other counties but an interesting survey by Kevin O’Brien on The42 website showed that Dublin have prioritised their first choice players to a greater extent than their rivals - with the exception of Wexford, who also share top place in their division.

The statistics show that Dublin have used just 21 players in the three rounds to date, the fewest of any of the Division 1 counties.

It is clear that Kenny’s priority is to train and play his matchday panel rather than use the opportunity to trial some newcomers, who might extend the options available for later in the year.

Win this evening and they are nearly qualified for the league semi-finals. Some teams may view the league as an unnecessary distraction but for Dublin a shot at silverware would be a welcome opportunity to build momentum for the Easter weekend start of the championship.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times