Sport Hurling

Thursday 8 December 2016

Will Cats silence the doubters?

Published 02/07/2011 | 05:00

ONLY two of Dublin's starters tomorrow have first-hand knowledge of what happens when the Cats' tail has been resoundly tugged, but it is a memory that surely gave them the odd nightmare.

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Only once in the past 13 years have Kilkenny's senior hurlers failed to win Leinster; they were ousted in the semi-finals by Wexford in 2004.

Their immediate reaction? They went out and roasted Dublin in the first round of the qualifiers (Kilkenny 4-22 Dublin 0-8), confining them to just three points from play.

And they didn't spare the rod in the next round either, racking up another 4-20 to Galway's 1-10 en route to the All-Ireland final.

Then Dublin boss Humphrey Kelleher said the bigger picture had yet to be drawn. "We're concentrating on bringing through colleges, minor and U-21 players who have all learned to play hurling the right way," he stressed.

Anthony Daly's side are living proof that the Dubs' long-term blueprint has paid off. But if their provincial foes were upset at being ousted by Mick Jacob's late game-snatcher in 2004, just how mad are they now?

Tipp ended their five-in-a-row dream last autumn, they haven't beaten Dublin in three meetings this year, their appetite and fitness was seriously questioned when they lost to them in the league final and, worst of all, they came out of that defeat with their disciplinary reputation also impugned.

If the Cats' claws were out in 2004, they will be sharpened like sabres tomorrow. Win and their reputation as Leinster kingpins and All-Ireland contenders will be replenished. Lose and many will regard them as being fatally wounded.

Only Gary Maguire and David O'Callaghan of Dublin's starters lined out in that 2004 qualifier, while the defending champions still retain Noel Hickey, Tommy Walsh, JJ Delaney, Henry Shefflin, Eddie Brennan and the injured Aidan Fogarty.

Their subsequent four-year All-Ireland reign proved them to be the 'Goliaths' of the game but Dublin, patently, are no longer a 'David'.

Some have already likened this situation to the Leinster final of 1976 when Kilkenny, chasing an All-Ireland three-in-a-row, were ousted by Wexford, but others say this team's mixed age-profile makes it very different.

So what are the implications for the Noresiders if they lose tomorrow?

Here's what some of county's former greats and keenest observers think.

CHRISTY HEFFERNAN

(Four-time All-Ireland winner who captained Kilkenny in 1991 final)

"If Kilkenny were beaten tomorrow I don't think it would have any long-term effect, because tradition doesn't change.

"It's like Kerry in football, they can be beaten but they'll come straight back and it will probably always be the same with Kilkenny hurling because the tradition is just so strong.

"Even if we were beaten, the season wouldn't be over, although I don't know if the players and Brian Cody could lift themselves to go again.

"The back door is always a gamble anyway because you don't know what's going to be left in there. If Waterford beat Tipperary in the Munster final, for example, Tipp would be in there too, which could make it very tricky for Kilkenny to take that route. Personally, I don't feel that a 'back door' All-Ireland is the same thing at all and I don't think Kilkenny supporters would have the same meas on it either.

"Tipperary won last year and they won it absolutely fair and square on the pitch, but I'd still regard that as a shaded All-Ireland title, like Cork's in 2004 and Offaly's in 1998.

"I'm living in Waterford for 25 years. They won Munster titles in 2004 and 2007 and 2010, deservedly for all the work they've put in, but the back door has caught them out a few times, which seems unfair.

"Every one of Kilkenny's 32 All-Irelands have been won through the front door and I believe they are all true All-Irelands and don't think Kilkenny want to win them any other way."

EDDIE KEHER

(Six-time All-Ireland winner who captained Kilkenny to 1969 victory)

"Even though many of these lads have already won so much, this is a huge game for Kilkenny.

"Firstly, they are the defending Leinster champions and no one likes to lose their title and it's an important game too because new players are being blended in all the time.

"I expect there to be quite a few players making their Leinster final debuts and that is a huge test for them and how our older players work with them.

"It also has added significance because losing a Leinster final would automatically put Kilkenny down the provincial pecking order and it would also mean we'd have to immediately regroup for the qualifiers.

"That's something we're not accustomed to, and whether there is enough time to do that and get things right for a second challenge is another big question that would have to be answered.

"But I am hopeful that won't be the case. Dublin are a super team and they alerted everyone, including Kilkenny, to that in the league final, but from what I've seen of Kilkenny's training recently, several of our established players are coming back to their peak for this and the form of the newer lads has also been impressive.

"I don't think you can liken this to 1976, that was a much different scenario, we had been through a lot of games in succession beforehand and were beaten by a very established Wexford team that gave us many great games in the '70s.

"This team has had plenty of time to prepare mentally and physically for this game."

JOHN HENDERSON

(Three-time All-Ireland winner and RTE analyst)

"If Kilkenny were beaten on Sunday I don't see it changing the county's hurling history in any shape or form; all it would do is leave some questions to be answered that are already probably there anyway.

"If Kilkenny lost, some questions would naturally be asked about players. Has he lost a yard? Does he still have the hunger? Has he still got it at the top level?

"And it would be Kilkenny people who would ask the hardest questions because they're the people closest to the game in the county and are its keenest observers.

"But these are all hypothetical questions and I honestly don't believe in them because if you thought about hurling like that, sure you'd never go out onto a pitch! This isn't like '76 at all because these players are not all the same age-group. Obviously you have an older group there who've been around a while, but Michael Fennelly is still only 22 with a lot of hurling still to do and there's a real mix of ages.

"Were Dublin to score goals they might win it, but they don't tend to score too many of them in the championship and I expect Kilkenny to win.

"Even if they lose, Kilkenny would still be involved in the All-Ireland, which is something I don't actually agree with. I don't believe counties like Kilkenny, Cork or Tipperary should get a second chance.

"They usually take it and that just means that the system supports the top counties and nullifies the chances of the weaker sides and stacks things further against them."

WILLIE O'CONNOR

(Three-time All-Ireland winner who captained Kilkenny to 2000 victory)

"I think this is actually a lovely opportunity for Brian Cody because it will really pose the hard question for him at the right time of the season.

"Dublin have beaten us twice already this year and the league final was competitive alright, but this is going to be a completely different game; this is going to be ultra competitive.

"No matter how many finals you've played in, no team, or player, ever likes to lose a final and Cody particularly doesn't like losing a match at any stage of the year.

"So this is the huge game that will tell him if the players have what is needed to stay at the very top of the game at the moment, or if he needs to rejig things and introduce some newer lads.

"There's this notion that Kilkenny have this conveyor belt, that there's players there who can automatically be taken out and slotted into the seniors, but I don't know if that's actually the case. Our U-21s are already gone out this year.

"Would the back door suit us? You never know what can happen, but surely it would suit any team better to take the direct route.

"Kilkenny are in a much better position this weekend than in the league final.

"Brian Cody will have all his aces out for this one and surely if you can't win with all your aces out, then it's going to be a lot harder to do it later on."

Irish Independent

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