Sunday 22 January 2017

Vincent Hogan: Kilkenny kings face rare threat to crown

Published 09/05/2011 | 12:05

The dilemma here is judging how much trust to invest in the naked eye. League finals, after all, have thrown up their share of straw kingdoms. Yet the starkness of what unspooled in Croke Park on May 1 demands an altered perspective on the Leinster Championship and, quite possibly, beyond.

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Could Kilkenny really be in such dire need of convalescent care as that 12-point drubbing proposed? Had Dublin just been flattered by severely depleted kings? Or has hurling found a new, authentic force?

Dublin's league win questioned so much of what we thought we knew about hierarchy and heritage.

They set their hurling at a heat that Kilkenny palpably resented, shipped the little outbursts of contrariness, then disappeared over the horizon to a soundtrack of "easy, easy".

For Anthony Daly, it had to be closure of a sort. Most of his work with Dublin has been a forensic of the mind.

When they bombed out against Antrim in last year's Qualifiers, he admitted that the temptation to walk away was tugging at his sleeve.

Two years of hard work seemed to unravel in 10 minutes of chaos. All the promises made had been duly broken, Dublin playing up to the old caricature of Fancy Dans genetically deprived a backbone.

Maybe three days after that game, Dotsy O'Callaghan sent his manager a text insisting that, if they stuck together, Dublin could take strength from their disgust.

PANEL

Dotsy is one of the longer-serving members of the panel and a man known to, habitually, beat himself up over the bad days.

If O'Callaghan wasn't waving a white handkerchief now, Daly thought then why should he?

Eight and a half months later, they are league champions for the first time since the outbreak of World War II and listed at unusually cramped odds of 9/2 to now add a first Leinster title in 50 years.

Whatever disappointments loom ahead for Dublin, they won't be attributable to a weak mind.

Yet, you could almost read Daly's mind as May Day echoed to an unfamiliar sound-track. To win this provincial title, Dublin will almost certainly have to beat Offaly, Galway and Kilkenny.

For years, we have been scornful of an uncompetitive Leinster Championship but now, suddenly, the Sugar Loaf has been reborn as the Eiger.

Yet anticipation of what's looming has to be asterisked by our scepticism for Kilkenny.

The draw favours them -- Offaly, Dublin and Galway all on the other side -- and it doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to see them mount a venomous defence of their provincial crown with men of the calibre of Tommy Walsh, Michael Fennelly and Richie Power restored to health, not to mention the peerless Henry Shefflin.

It's just that the team's body-language yesterday week was so leaden and vexed, it was impossible to escape a suspicion that here might well have been a group tiring of the ritual.

Under Brian Cody, Kilkenny have contested 10 of the last 12 All-Ireland finals. They've attained a level of consistency never seen in the game before and, to a point, maybe that gave them an almost abstract quality in our eyes.

It was easy to forget that you were still looking at flesh and bone.

In the league final, Kilkenny managed a paltry 1-1 from play and were dominated physically by a team that, until recently, would have been dismissed as flaky.

Conal Keaney and Ryan O'Dwyer have, clearly, added presence to the Dublin attack. But that much?

The Offaly game on May 29 is a treacherous one for Dublin and yet, whatever the outcome, Galway will fancy their chances against the winners.

John McIntyre's boys were motoring serenely through the League until running into the propellers of a freakishly good Tipperary performance in round six.

Thereafter, they called up the Portumna cavalry of Joe Canning and Damien Hayes for the concluding game with Waterford and, despite a decent scoring contribution from both, still managed to come up short.

They are, thus, the unreadable puzzle of this championship.

In all the rhetoric spun by last year's wonderful All-Ireland final, it was largely overlooked that only the concession of three points in the last two minutes prevented Galway from cutting Tipp's summer short. That quarter-final was, essentially, won on the toss of a coin then.

Trouble is, Galway have a reputation for calling heads just as tails comes up. Worse, they were gallingly flat in last year's Leinster final on a day that Kilkenny shot an intemperate number of wides.

Galway just seem susceptible to mood swings and the challenge for McIntyre is identifying the reason.

A provincial title could electrify them and it would, at least, secure them a first All-Ireland semi-final berth in six years. Get that far and they are capable of anything. Literally.

Offaly seemed to have stolen a psychological march on Wexford when they won their league meeting, thereby -- it seemed -- avoiding the relegation trap-door.

It left Wexford having to take a minimum of three points from concluding games with Cork and Tipperary, a challenge that, incredibly, they met.

Offaly, thus, were relegated and -- for all their heroism in two pulsating games against Galway last year -- they now face an extraordinarily difficult championship.

That late Houdini act in the league may encourage some Wexford natives to get a little giddy about a possible semi-final tilt at Kilkenny on June 18.

Yet, Colm Bonnar won't be looking beyond Antrim or Laois, particularly in light of the Northerners' heroics against both Offaly and Dublin last year.

The hunch has to be that, with an outbreak of sufficient candour in Nowlan Park over the coming weeks, Cody will locate a pulse in Kilkenny.

They should certainly be in the provincial final on July 3, probably against Galway or Dublin, and -- face it -- will be relatively short odds against either.

Then we'll find out if the kings were really dead this spring. Or merely wiping the sleep from their eyes.

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