John Mullane: Kilkenny resume normal service and are going to get stronger
Published 13/06/2016 | 02:30
When Kilkenny won the All-Ireland title last year, they used 21 players throughout the season.
In the first game against Wexford, Brian Cody brought on four subs. He used three in the Leinster final victory over Galway, one of them in stoppage time when Matthew Ruth was introduced for his only appearance of the campaign.
Cody used just one sub, John Power, in the All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford, and Power was brought on with his brother Richie in the final 10 minutes of the All-Ireland final. Across four games, Cody introduced 10 subs in an era when it's commonplace to run in the entire bench and use the five permitted substitutes per game.
The point is, and Cody knows it, that while the Kilkenny panel might not be as strong as in previous years, a core group of 18 or 19 players is all they will possibly need to win the Liam MacCarthy Cup again.
They were without Richie Hogan against Dublin on Saturday, while Richie Power has retired and forwards Ger Aylward and James Maher are injured.
Joe Lyng, a defender tipped to start at the weekend, sustained cruciate knee ligament damage recently, yet the Kilkenny machine keeps rumbling on with Jonjo Farrell looking like he'll be the 2016 equivalent of Aylward.
When Kilkenny crumbled in the League semi-final against Clare in April, they were missing Paul Murphy, Michael and Colin Fennelly, Eoin Larkin and Conor Fogarty.
All five were back against Dublin and what a difference they made. Larkin got 50 minutes under his belt and will be even sharper in the Leinster final after three more weeks of training.
Michael Fennelly was outstanding and that half-back line was like a brick wall.
The eight weeks since the Clare game allowed Kieran Joyce the chance to get himself into superb shape and he completely nullified the influence of Dublin's Niall McMorrow.
But the key defensively was Murphy at corner-back and there's no way that a team will get in for four goals against Kilkenny again this year as Clare did in the League semi-final.
Early on, Walter Walsh set the tone for a really physical game and Lester Ryan got through an enormous amount of work.
Dublin suffered a complete meltdown on their own puck-outs, but Liam Rushe, Cian O'Callaghan and Eoghan O'Donnell can be absolved of any blame for this defeat. O'Donnell is going to be a serious hurler, I thought he was by far Dublin's best player but you'd look at Dublin's squad and describe it as lightweight at best.
It's time for manager Ger Cunningham to pick up the phone and get Danny Sutcliffe back for the qualifiers, and they need Peter Kelly fit.
Ryan O'Dwyer going off at half-time took away a physical edge and Kilkenny blew Dublin away with a 1-8 salvo in 12 minutes after the break.
I still believe there are vulnerabilities in the Kilkenny full-back line.
Robert Lennon had a reasonably good game, but against superior opposition, he might be better served in the half-back line.
Joey Holden was turned a couple of times. but Kilkenny have that wall of protection in front of their full-backs and because they'll be coming up against sweeper systems from now on, that inside line might not be exposed that much.
I heard TJ Reid speaking after the game and he said that Hogan and Shane Prendergast will be back for the Leinster final.
Kilkenny used 18 players on Saturday evening and when Prendergast and Hogan come back into the mix, that's the core 20 they need.
The eyes of the hurling world will now turn to Thurles next Sunday, when Tipperary welcome Limerick to Semple Stadium. The talk in Waterford already is where a Munster final against Tipp will be played, and if we'll travel up to Thurles again.
I wonder if Limerick will go with the sweeper, which they tried at the end of the League, or go man-on-man? In my view, the only way they'll beat Tipp is by going man-on-man.
Limerick have the personnel to take on Tipp and in two of the last three Championship meetings between the sides, they've won when written off. But with the game against Cork under their belts, it's advantage Tipp and they have the firepower to do damage. What they have now, too, is that group of 20 players required to win trophies but I'd like to see Patrick 'Bonner' Maher back in the starting 15.
Elsewhere, Galway will have too much for Offaly in the second Leinster semi-final.
Westmeath beat Offaly by 14 points and then Galway put 3-27 past Westmeath, winning by 17. I can't see Offaly making up that gap on Galway, despite Eamonn Kelly's great work since the Westmeath collapse.