Sunday 22 October 2017

The men who will defend the empire

Kilkenny's stalwarts ready for battle as shadow looms over unprecedented era of dominance

Kilkenny players stand for a minute's silence prior to the NHL final clash against Tipperary in Nowlan Park
Kilkenny players stand for a minute's silence prior to the NHL final clash against Tipperary in Nowlan Park
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

At around 6.40 this evening, a group of Kilkenny men will run out onto Nowlan Park for possibly the most important game of their careers.

The starting 15 have 70 All-Ireland senior hurling medals between them, as well as dozens more honours, spread across National League and various underage grades. Their manager is by far the most decorated mentor in hurling, having presided over nine All-Ireland senior successes since 2000.

And then there are injured friends Henry Shefflin and Michael Fennelly, two Hurlers of the Year, men who would dearly love to be involved in this massive occasion. Their absence from the semi-final against Dublin is almost certainly the reason that, instead of relaxing this evening in preparation for tomorrow's Leinster final, Kilkenny are facing the ultimate last-chance-saloon shoot-out against their greatest rivals.

It's impossible to overestimate the significance of this evening's game for Kilkenny. Victory gets them back on track to retain the All-Ireland title but defeat would probably lead to an extensive overhaul for 2014.

CYCLE

It's not that the average age of the squad is particularly high (it comes in at just under 27 years for the starting 15) but, at the same time, four of the defenders are 30 or older, so exiting the championship in early July might bring the end of a cycle for some of them.

Of course, nobody in the Kilkenny camp will be thinking that way. This game is all about saving the empire from what they would regard as the ultimate indignity if they were to surrender the All-Ireland title to Tipperary in their spiritual home.

Kilkenny's driven performance against Tipperary in the league final two months ago underlined just how fiercely determined they were not to concede any prize to their neighbours. However, a league final, while important in its own right, is little more than a challenge game compared to an All-Ireland championship showdown.

This evening is an occasion where the Kilkenny squad will appeal to their emotions like never before. They have enjoyed so much success in the new Millennium that, if circumstances were more normal, it would be understandable if the appetite had waned ever so slightly.

Not anymore. Everything that defines this remarkable group will be summoned in a very special way as they as seek to not only stay in the All-Ireland race but also eliminate one of the other main contenders.

It would the ultimate triumph for Tipp if they were to beat Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. Apart from the satisfaction of slaying the biggest beast in the jungle, it would catapult Tipp to the head of the remaining pack chasing the title.

So who are the men Kilkenny have entrusted to rescue the empire from the indignity of losing everything on their own ground? Meet the 15 starters and the guiding hand that leads them.

No 1. Eoin Murphy

Age: 22 Club: Glenmore

Championship debut: 2013

Championship games: 3

All-Ireland SHC medals: 1

He got a hot reception in his debut against Offaly, who scored four goals. Since then, he has conceded only one more in the two games against Dublin. Overall, he is having a solid debut season.

No 2. Conor Fogarty

Age: 23 Club: Erin's Own

C'ship debut: 2012

C'ship games: 4

All-Ireland SHC medals: 2

Replacing the injured Paul Murphy, it's a massive occasion for a relative newcomer but also a chance to announce himself as a man for the future. Mind you, all that matters is the present in Kilkenny.

No 3. JJ Delaney

Age: 31. Club: Fenians

C'ship debut: 2001

C'ship games: 55

All-Ireland SHC medals: 8

Not at his imperious best so far in the championship but has the experience and pedigree to deliver when the temperature is at its highest, as it will be this evening.

No 4. Jackie Tyrrell

Age: 31. Club: James Stephens

C'ship debut: 2005

C'ship games: 36

All-Ireland SHC medals: 7

The ultimate corner-back's corner-back, his native city and county need him now. Will he be deputed to resume engagement with Lar Corbett, a rivalry that has provided some fascinating battles?

No 5. Tommy Walsh

Age: 30. Club: Tullaroan

C'ship debut: 2003

C'ship games: 49

All-Ireland SHC medals: 8

The ultimate barometer of Kilkenny's chances of retaining the All-Ireland title. This is the type of game to really inspire him. He's slated to mark John O'Brien, one of Tipp's main ball-winners in attack.

No 6. Brian Hogan

Age: 31. Club: O'Loughlin Gaels

C'ship debut: 2004

C'ship games: 29

All-Ireland SHC medals: 7

Man of the match against Offaly but much more stretched against Dublin. Offaly or Dublin – which is his real form this summer? The Tipp test will decide.

No 7. Kieran Joyce

Age: 25. Club: Rower-Inistioge

C'ship debut: 2012

C'ship games: 8

All-Ireland SHC medals: 2

With Tommy Walsh on the other side, opponents tend to attack his wing. It's not always the wiser option. Joyce has settled in as a really solid No 7, who can also play in the centre if required.

No 8. Michael Rice

Age: 29. Club: Carrickshock

C'ship debut: 2005

C'ship games: 24

All-Ireland SHC medals: 6

Made no real impact either day against Dublin, replaced by half-time on both occasions. No need to tell him what Kilkenny expect this evening. Did well against Tipperary in the league final.

No 9. Lester Ryan

Age: 25. Club: Clara

C'ship debut: 2013

C'ship games: 3

All-Ireland SHC medals: 2

Struggled against Dublin in the drawn game but did better as a sub last week. Still adapting to championship life in his first season. Also performed well against Tipp in the league decider.

No 10. Walter Walsh

Age: 22. Club: Tullogher-Rosbercon

C'ship debut: 2012

C'ship games: 4

All-Ireland SHC medals: 1

Scored 1-4 from open play against Dublin in the drawn game; drew a blank last Saturday and was replaced on the hour mark. Likely to be much closer to goal than his jersey number suggests.

No 11. Richie Power

Age: 28. Club: Carrickshock

C'ship debut: 2005

C'ship games: 34

All-Ireland SHC medals: 6

Gave a much better performance against Dublin last week after a largely anonymous outing in the drawn game. Kilkenny need a big one from him, the sort of performance they would expect from Henry Shefflin.

No12. Eoin Larkin

Age: 28. Club: James Stephens

C'ship debut: 2005

C'ship games: 39

All-Ireland SHC medals: 6

Carrying the free-taking responsibilities in Henry Shefflin's absence, his general game has not been at its usual high standard. Kilkenny supporters will be expecting more from him.

No 13. Colin Fennelly

Age: 23. Club: Ballyhale Shamrocks

C'ship debut: 2011

C'ship games: 13

All-Ireland SHC medals: 2

The captain has not had a good championship so far. Why do Kilkenny continue with the illogical policy of automatically awarding the captaincy to the county champions? Tommy Walsh is in his 10th year with Kilkenny but has no chance of being captain because Tullaroan aren't in a position to challenge for the county title.

No 14. Richie Hogan

Age: 24. Club: Danesfort

C'ship debut: 2008

C'ship games: 19

All-Ireland SHC medals: 5

Drew a blank last week after scoring a total of 0-5 in the previous two games. He needs to get a sniff on goal as Kilkenny seek to return to scoring three-pointers after an unusually low return in their last three games.

No 15. Aidan Fogarty

Age: 30. Club: Emeralds

C'ship debut: 2004

C'ship games: 30

All-Ireland SHC medals: 7

Replaced against Offaly, brought on against Dublin (draw) and played the full game last week. Total score from 115 minutes: 0-1. Needs a higher return.

Manager – Brian Cody

Age: 58. Club: James Stephens

C'ship debut (as manager): 1999

C'ship games: 65

All-Ireland SHC medals (as manager): 9

He is facing a different type of challenge as Kilkenny battle for championship survival on home territory in early July. The occasion may be different but Cody's fundamental approach will remain the same, with everything predicated on hard work and general efficiency.

Irish Independent

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