Kilkenny look equipped to pass a stiff test


HURLING ANALYST:The suspicion remains that the champions will find scores easier to come by than Dublin

THE hurling championship has been slow to take off with all kinds of distractions and a sense after the league final that Kilkenny are all-conquering and the season is a foregone conclusion.

I think this evening in Portlaoise is far from that clear-cut for Kilkenny. Dublin’s league form – whereas not as good as last year’s – wasn’t bad enough to merit relegation. They played well in a lot of matches, including in Nowlan Park where they dominated Kilkenny physically to have the match in the bag only to contrive to lose it.

Last year they went to the All-Ireland semi-finals while missing three or four of their best players and were still close enough on the scoreboard at the end. Now they have all of those players back and the boot is on the other foot as regards injuries now that Kilkenny have been run back into that corner.

Having had a clean bill of health in 2011 after difficulties the previous year, they now find themselves back with doubts and difficulties in preparation for a lot of their better players, such as Henry Shefflin – who’s not back in harness even as long as Lar Corbett who’s still not starting – and Richie Power.

More importantly they face the loss of Michael Rice and especially Michael Fennelly, who has become hugely influential.

The ingredients are there for a real test for Kilkenny and Dublin have been targeting this game from a long way back, regardless of the league campaign.

It’s a true test for them, a measure of how far they’ve moved on as a team, not just in how competitive they will be against the champions but in how they approach the game.

In last year’s semi-final they played with seven defenders, which isn’t really a set-up to win an All-Ireland; it’s to ensure damage limitation and maybe a sign that, given the depletion of their resources, they weren’t confident against Tipperary.

This year they’ve been 15 on 15 and this is where Anthony Daly has been taking them over recent seasons: to the stage where they can seriously compete and not just survive.

Kilkenny were impressive in the league final but I wouldn’t make the comparison between Dublin and Cork because Dublin are much more experienced and highly unlikely to be stage-struck in Portlaoise. They also won’t get blown away physically. In fact Dublin will be a physical test for Kilkenny.

The bigger question for Dublin is their scoring prowess and the ease with which they’ll be able to get scores against a Kilkenny defence that was outstanding against Cork. Richie Doyle came in and played really well at wing back – the first time I saw him I spent 40 minutes thinking he was JJ Delaney! Jackie Tyrrell was back on form and Paul Murphy looked so assured, even in just his second year.

Dublin have found goals hard to come by aside from last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick. But against tougher opposition scores haven’t flowed.

They’re very strong, physical players but in terms of being neat scorers they still have something to prove, particularly given the way Kilkenny close down space, which leaves the opposition just one touch and you really need the confidence and the ease to make that that count.

The league gives the lie to the idea that Kilkenny are in slow but inevitable decline. They’ve found new players in Cillian Buckley and Doyle, who were very impressive during that campaign. Eoin Larkin has been in the sort of form that made him Hurler of the Year in 2008 and they stormed the league final with their best forwards, Shefflin and Power, not playing.

The one concern has to be the middle of the field with both Fennelly and Rice unavailable but I believe Buckley has what it takes to acquit himself well.

Dublin are still capable of exerting pressure there and will be well up for the physical battle with Kilkenny’s half backs but can they get the scores?

I think Portlaoise is a good venue for this because it will create a better atmosphere than Croke Park. Does it favour Dublin? Yes and no. The smaller pitch suits their physical style but tighter confines also put a premium on speed, skill and first touch.

I believe Kilkenny will win because they’ll find scores easier to come by but this is a big test for Dublin and one they don’t necessarily have to win to pass. Their performance will show whether they’ve reached a level where they can compete at the very top of the game.

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