Jamesie O'Connor: Kilkenny facing real danger of an early exit
A demanding start to the year has hurt some more than others.
When the news filtered through to Limerick last week of Kilkenny's last-gasp draw with Dublin, you couldn't help but think about the implications that result has for the rest of the hurling championship. Monday morning's qualifier draw added further intrigue to the mix and the All-Ireland champions will face a massive test against Tipperary next weekend.
A Leinster final date with Galway would have been the lesser of two evils considering that a winner-takes-all knockout tie against a rested and rejuvenated Tipp next Saturday was the last thing Brian Cody wanted this early in the summer. With his commander-in-chief Henry Shefflin still some way from full fitness, one of his key generals Michael Fennelly unlikely to be available, and a couple more, Eoin Larkin and Richie Power in particular, struggling to find their best form, the signs are worrying and the vultures just might be starting to circle.
I wouldn't be writing their obituary just yet, but Kilkenny look more vulnerable now than at any stage in the last five years, particularly after last night's defeat. As the week has gone on, and considering the other championship results to date, it also begs the question: are teams paying the price now for the effort and energy expended earlier in the year?
We all know how competitive this year's Division 1A was, with everything, from relegation to play-off places, coming down to the last round of matches.
Clare certainly put in a massive effort to retain their status over the course of the six games they played. Having worked so hard to get promoted, that was understandable, particularly in the context of trying to develop a young team. But the importance attached to that objective meant a relatively small pool of players saw game time. I don't know if the Cork management prioritised it to the same extent, but there was a greater degree of experimentation evident in their approach to the league, and while they weren't necessarily any fitter than their opponents last Sunday, they certainly looked fresher.
Tipp, one of the league finalists, have already been ousted by a Division 1B side and the other, Kilkenny, finally succumbed to the same fate last night. It's the Cats, especially in light of that loss to Dublin, that make for the most interesting analysis. Having lost their first two games, to Galway and Tipp, that put them under serious pressure to win the remaining three, firstly to ensure survival; and, secondly, to give themselves a shot at making the play-offs. As events transpired, they not only achieved that objective, but were afforded the opportunity to reverse those earlier defeats to their two chief rivals and administer another bit of pain and self-doubt in the process.
Kilkenny were definitely up for the semi-final with Galway, but I'm not sure the same could be said for their opponents. And at home in Nowlan Park for the final with Tipp, there was no way defeat could be countenanced. You could even sense on the day how badly they wanted to take Tipp's scalp, but also that, mentally, Tipp hadn't put as much into it.
The problem is, with the long-term injuries Kilkenny had, their resources and the depth of their panel has really been tested. Players who in hindsight could have done with a rest had to play, and the mental energy necessary to get up for those games looks to have taken its toll.
Don't expect to see the white flag being raised just yet. That won't be allowed to happen. But this team has been on the road a long time. Four hard championship matches in five weeks is the last thing an ageing side, even one as great as this one, needs, considering it's still a long way to August and September.
There's been understandable disappointment in Clare all week after a glorious opportunity to make it to the Munster final slipped away. At first glance, the qualifier draw was kind with a home tie with Laois, and if results go as expected, a probable tie with Wexford for a place in the quarter-finals. However, the Laois players and management will have sat up and taken notice at how easily Cork dealt with the Clare challenge in the second half last Sunday.
This is a different Laois team to the ultra naive and accommodating one that allowed Cork to rip them apart and score ten goals two years ago, and that also capitulated last season. They're a far more pragmatic, better organised and better prepared side now. They were level at half-time with Galway, playing eight and even nine defenders at times, frustrating the opposition and playing with no little purpose themselves. If Laois come to Ennis, park the bus and make it very difficult for Clare, as I suspect they will, it could be a real test of character for this Clare team.
In such circumstances, a measure of composure and patience will be required, especially if things aren't going to plan. With so much inexperience – six of this year's under 21 team finished on the field last Sunday – the Clare management will need to have their homework done. In addition, because they've given lots of it to Clare in the league in recent years, Laois shouldn't have any great fear of the opposition and while Davy Fitz's side should have enough quality to get the show back on the road, they'll be made to work for it.
With Tipp drawn away to Kilkenny, there'll be one high-profile name exiting the hurling championship next Saturday night, and with the stakes that high, what a game it promises to be. With Kilkenny having
endured tough competitive games on consecutive weekends, which brings not only fatigue but also injuries into play, Tipp have a definite advantage in being fresh and rested. By all accounts, they've trained well since the Limerick game, and with Lar Corbett and Jason Forde both available for selection, the attack that malfunctioned so badly in the last quarter will surely show some improvement. There's no doubt that Tipp have the talent to come back and be a major force this year. The question is whether or not they have the desire.
This is a real crossroads point for this group of Tipperary players. Eoin Kelly, Brendan Cummins, Lar Corbett, John O'Brien and Paul Curran are all now the wrong side of 30. For Cummins and Kelly in particular, this could very well be their last shot at it, and there's no guarantee that Lar and O'Brien will have the appetite for another campaign either.
The defeat to Limerick has also removed the safety net, and there is no longer any margin for error. After that result, and the way the season ended last August, Eamon O'Shea will really have put it up to them, and if we see the urgency that was so lacking in that final quarter in Limerick, I expect them to deliver a big performance.
The last month, and all those games, has to have depleted the batteries of Kilkenny. It's very unfortunate to be running into Tipp at this particular juncture, but in such circumstances, you'd have to expect their season to come to an end on Saturday.