Cyril Farrell: Dubs had their chance – Cats will be back to best in replay
WHAT odds on Kilkenny being out of the All-Ireland hurling championship before the Leinster final? It hasn't happened since pre-qualifier days back in 1996, but obviously in light of last Sunday's result against Dublin, followed by the qualifier draw, it's now a possibility.
The losers of this evening's replay will face Tipperary next Saturday and, while Dublin or Kilkenny will have home advantage, it will still be a mighty tough challenge off a seven-day turnaround.
That's why so much is at stake in Portlaoise, with the winners still having two championship lives, plus a guaranteed place in the All-Ireland quarter-final, while the losers head for last chance saloon and a shoot-out with Tipperary.
It's a stark contrast, which will have concentrated Dublin and Kilkenny minds all week. First, let's dispense with the myths, topped by the view that Kilkenny are unbeatable in replays. Yes, they beat Galway last year, Clare in 2004 and Wexford in 1993, but what exactly does that prove?
Certainly a whole lot less than the evidence presented last Sunday, which showed Dublin as a serious force in a championship that has taken on a lively and unpredictable personality. It's all the better for that.
Dublin played last Sunday like they were expected to last year. They got their own game working, never allowed Kilkenny to set the agenda and grew in confidence as the day went on.
After last year's dismal experience against Kilkenny, there would have been a degree of self-doubt in the Dublin mindset, but last weekend's performance will have banished that.
It's one less thing for them to worry about. Their main concern now centres on whether they can adapt to what will be a different level of pressure.
I'm told that the contrast in body language from the two sets of players as they emerged from the dressing-room after the game was interesting. Dublin were positive and upbeat, while Kilkenny lads looked as if they had lost.
That might suggest that it's 'advantage Dublin' in the replay, but it's not that simple.
Several Kilkenny players from midfield up played way below their best and would have been livid with themselves. You don't often see Michael Rice, Lester Ryan, Richie Power, Colin Fennelly, Cillian Buckley, Eoin Larkin and Richie Hogan (apart from early on) misfiring like they did last week.
There's so much more in them but some would have been wondering last Sunday evening if they had played themselves off the starting 15. And if so, which of them?
Well, now we know that it was Fennelly and Ryan. As for those who are getting a chance to redeem themselves, they will be driven by a huge sense self-preservation.
Clearly, Kilkenny badly missed Henry Shefflin, the master strategist, and Michael Fennelly, the midfield engine, but Brian Cody never makes excuses involving absent friends and will have reminded everybody else that they need to be self-sufficient. Kilkenny are usually so good at that but not last Sunday when a lot of individual battles were lost.
Once Dublin realised it was a day when they could match Kilkenny one-on-one, they grew in self-belief.
They also executed their game plan very efficiently, especially in the second half when they carried the ball confidently out of defence, off-loaded to a colleague and maintained the momentum deep into Kilkenny territory.
The thing about Dublin this year is that they are able to field their best team and also have good back-ups, as proven by 'Dotsy' O'Callaghan and Mark Schutte when they came on last week.
They had other alternatives, too. With Paul Ryan not on his game, Anthony Daly was able to replace him, confident that Joey Boland could take over the free-taking duties quite comfortably, which he duly did.
It's most unusual for Kilkenny to deliver two indifferent performances in succession, even more so for them to produce a third.
In fact, the only way that's likely to happen is if they have slipped quite some way from their peak. Mind you, that was implied after last year's Leinster final defeat and again after the All-Ireland final draw. On both occasions, their response was emphatically powerful.
The reality last Sunday was that while Dublin played a smart, compact game very intelligently, quite a few Kilkenny players under-performed.
There was nothing wrong with their system but they were let down by uncharacteristically poor touch at times and the absence of the frenzied intensity they usually bring to the pursuit of possession in broken play.
Both are fixable and I expect the correction to swing the balance Kilkenny's way.
RACE ON FOR LAST EIGHT
I was in Tullamore for Offaly v Waterford last Saturday and was struck by the number of Deise supporters who made the long journey for a qualifier game.
They still believe that this season has a lot to offer and they could well be right. It will certainly take them beyond this evening and the trip to Mullingar to take on Westmeath.
Wexford are back on track, too, and will motor further down the line when they play Carlow.
Offaly are the only top-10 county out of what is developing into a fascinating championship.
Galway, Cork and Limerick are guaranteed an All-Ireland quarter-final spot, at least, leaving the big question – which teams will join them? It will be fun finding out.