Cody's fringe crew aiming to capitalise on absence of stars
LIKE a thief in the night the All-Ireland hurling champions will slip quietly back into action tomorrow.
They're not alone of course as county hurlers countrywide are dusting the cobwebs off (now compulsory) helmets and easing themselves back in gently through the secondary competitions.
All-Ireland finalists Tipperary have already been knocked out of the Waterford Crystal by Clare, who face Waterford tomorrow in the Decies' first bow of 2010.
And in Leinster, Dublin, Galway, Laois and Wexford all open their seasons with Walsh Cup quarter-finals in the next 48 hours, in preparation for the National League which starts on February 20.
Kilkenny's first NHL clash with Tipperary already has fans licking their lips and even if Brian Cody puts out a third string for their season opener with Offaly tomorrow, hurling twitchers will have their binoculars trained from afar.
When you've already won an indelible four senior All-Irelands in a row, and could end the season with a momentous fifth, every move you make will be monitored.
So what do we know?
Well Kilkenny only came back from a holiday in Malaysia two weeks ago.
They had their first training session last Friday and had another in Castlecomer last Sunday.
Even before they flew to the Far East it is said Cody sat down with each member of last year's panel and asked them to assess the past season.
In corporate-speak this is a performance review, and it is this sort of individual care and attention that is part of why the Good Ship Kilkenny Hurling has maintained such an even course with Cody at its helm.
The Cats will inevitably be experimental in the next few months, not least because they have considerable absentees, not least the Ballyhale contingent (Shefflin and the Reid brothers) and also Michael Kavanagh, who is club-tied with All-Ireland intermediate club finalists St Lachtain's.
Eddie Brennan is just back from honeymoon and Eoin Larkin is still recovering from a hip injury and is bringing Liam McCarthy up north this weekend for some club visits.
Winter rumours that Brennan was set to move from his home club of Graigue-Ballycallan have been firmly knocked on the head.
Ditto with mis-speculation that John Tennyson might miss some of the season. He went travelling to Australia for a few months but is now back.
The panel will reportedly be 'open-ended' in the League, two words that every aspiring Kilkenny senior must love or dread depending on their form.
Look at what's ahead of them on the ladder fighting for a starting place, even in the League.
Noel Hickey (28), a three-time All Star and six-time senior All-Ireland winner who, because of injury, hasn't played for Kilkenny since the '08 final.
Then there's James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick, still only 24 and also gunning to get back after a season disrupted by injury.
Martin Comerford and TJ Reid, both scoring substitutes in the All-Ireland final, would have started it with any other county and that bench also included the team captain Michael Fennelly and James Ryall.
Of those tipped to have a chance at an imminent breakthrough are Damien Fogarty (son of selector Martin, who was on the bench last September) and Paddy Hogan, Richie's versatile brother.
When Waterford IT won the 2008 Fitzgibbon Cup in that extra-time epic with Limerick IT they featured John Dalton and the two Reid brothers of Kilkenny but their centre-back Pat Hartley, a subsequent All-Ireland junior club finalist with Tullogher-Rosbercon, is another whose progress is worth watching.
And so is Bill Beckett, who will be helping UCC defend their Fitzgibbon title this year and is starring for St Lachtain's in a central attacking role.