'Where would we get parking?' - Henry Shefflin on how strange it was as a spectator
Big guns marked out by ruthlessness of their approach
Published 27/06/2015 | 14:00
For the last couple of years, I sat beside Ger Aylward in the Nowlan Park dressing-room, essentially watching a good young player find his bearings.
People were asking me about him before the game last Sunday. What was he like? How did I rate him? Would he be a threat? His success as a minor meant that he came into the senior squad with a strong reputation, but it's basically taken him three years for his first big championship start. The one thing I was saying to people on Sunday was that Ger's very explosive.
He's a dynamic kind of player, similar in ways to Colin Fennelly with his power and pace. But you know, it's amazing to think that he was only on the extended panel last season, didn't tog out for either of the All-Ireland finals, would have suffered a bit with his ankles, yet was the marquee performer last Sunday.
That's some testament to the Kilkenny management. It's amazing the way they can hold these players, develop them and then, when given the opportunity, it's as if they're just to the manner born.
What stands out about Ger is he's very direct, hungry for goals. Players who run at defenders are the dangerous ones. By all accounts, he played very well against Limerick in the recent challenge, was going well in training and seems to be, finally, free of injury, so now maybe the consistency is coming. Ger's challenge for the rest of the year now is to maintain that consistency.
You can see that he's benefited from a couple of years on Kilkenny's strength and conditioning programme.
Maybe there's a sense that this championship hasn't quite ignited yet. We've seen four very strong performances from the counties that will now contest next month's Leinster and Munster finals. But, outside of Kilkenny, Galway, Tipperary and Waterford, I doubt very much there's another team that will be happy with their form thus far.
So maybe neutrals feel a little underwhelmed just now. But the cut and thrust of knockout hurling is almost upon us with the looming qualifiers and I think that's going to transform the personality of this championship.
Sunday was strange for me in Nowlan Park. I'd become so conditioned to the routines of being a Kilkenny hurler - linking up with the Ballyhale lads on the morning of a game, wearing the tracksuit, relishing the fact that a championship Sunday had finally arrived - maybe I felt a little bit like a fish out of water last weekend.
I sent the club lads a text on Saturday evening, just wishing them all the best. It's something I've routinely gotten from an assortment of people before big matches in my own career, just a small gesture that I always appreciated.
So Sunday itself felt like a new beginning for me. Suddenly, the simplest logistics had to be considered. Like, where would we get parking? What turnstile would we use? It was all so new to me having spent the guts of two decades inside that Kilkenny bubble.
Still, I really enjoyed just sitting back and savouring the spectacle of the team hurling so well. I expected a big performance from them and they certainly delivered that.
I just felt that in the build-up maybe some people were forgetting they were still the All-Ireland champions. A lot was being made of the fact that they hadn't hurled competitively in 12 weeks, but that was just going to add to their hunger. I thought Michael Fennelly, particularly, was a huge influence in the opening 20 minutes.
The thing that struck me most looking at both Kilkenny and Tipp last weekend was that you don't need to over-train a team when they're not playing.
It's all about keeping things fresh, stoking that hunger. Both Brian Cody and Eamon O'Shea must have been delighted that they got things spot-on, that they hadn't over-cooked their players in training.
I was disappointed with Wexford, albeit those two early Kilkenny goals were killers for them to absorb. When you're underdogs, that can knock the stuffing out of you. You could almost see them deflate in front of our eyes as Kilkenny built a lead against the wind.
It struck me that the big three teams at the weekend, Kilkenny, Tipp and Galway, all went for the jugular in the same way. They went for early goals.
I'm a traditionalist and I would have thought Wexford had to use that breeze to their advantage. It seemed to me that they were preoccupied with the worry of Kilkenny's half-backs catching Mark Fanning's puck-outs, so they were trying to go short, meaning the ball had to go through two or three sets of fingers before finally being launched.
I couldn't see the point of that.
I know a lot was expected of Conor McDonald, but it's very hard when everyone around you is struggling too. In contrast, nearly everybody was on their game in the Kilkenny forward line. When you've good players playing well around you, chances are you're going to play well too.
But Wexford were under pressure in defence, so the quality of ball being delivered out of there was probably suiting Kilkenny.
I'd say Liam Dunne will have been relieved to get a home draw for the qualifiers, albeit Cork represent one of the toughest opponents they could face. But, as he said on Sunday evening, there's two ways Wexford can go now. They can lie down or they can fight.
That's going to be a massive game now considering it will put either Wexford or Cork out of this championship in the first week of July.
I was very impressed with the speed of Tipp's hurling in Limerick. I thought their performance encapsulated the importance of strength in depth. No more than Kilkenny, Tipp have been relying on playing internal matches of late. When you have 20 players fighting hard to get on the starting 15 and another ten fighting hard to get on the subs' bench, the quality and intensity of those training matches is assured.
Without that depth of panel, you might have 17 lads fighting to start without any major pressure being applied to them, so that obligation to perform every night in training just isn't there. In Kilkenny and Tipp, lads are constantly looking over their shoulder. That's a great strength.
Everything good that we've associated with Tipp in recent years was there in abundance against Limerick. Their movement, their score-taking, just everything about them was top quality. Maybe people have been questioning their character, but it tends to be forgotten that they came from six points down against Galway last year.
Some teams just get unfairly labelled so it was probably a big thing for Tipp to put on that performance in Limerick and, just as importantly, to respond so well to Limerick's rally just after half-time.
Limerick seemed to get picked off very easily by Darren Gleeson's puck-outs. He can be very deceptive, sometimes looking the other way when he strikes the ball to a defender. And Tipp's players aren't taking his deliveries on the hurl, they're taking them to hand which quickens everything up.
If you're opting for short puck-outs, you need to do it at high tempo and Gleeson is seriously precise with his delivery.
I expect the championship to really take off now over the next three weeks and it's certainly not beyond the bounds that someone could come bolting out of those qualifiers with real momentum. The form teams at the moment won't necessarily be the ones in Croke Park on September 6.
Remember how Tipperary's championship opened in 2010?