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Cats to have last laugh

PEDIGREE versus potential? A great team on the slide (allegedly!) against ambitious wannabes on the rise? Gilt-edged experience versus ravenous hunger?

Welcome to the surreal world of a Leinster hurling final preview that causes the writer to pause for more than five seconds before keying in the most recycled cliché in GAA reportage: Verdict Kilkenny.

That second paragraph, we hasten to add, doesn't necessarily translate into an end-game of 'Verdict Dublin' either.



Corridors

It's just that there's a new gale-force wind blowing through the corridors of Leinster hurling and, contrary to most predictions when a certain western interloper hopped across the Shannon in 2009, they aren't bedecked in maroon and white.

Anthony Daly is now in his third season at the Sky Blue helm but, while they've been gradually building towards this dizzy point, the transformation this year has been little short of astounding. They are playing with the physicality and mentality of a top-tier team, one that believes they belong among the Kilkennys, Tipps and Corks of this world.

Small ball's cosy cartel was smashed during their giddy ascent to Allianz League glory this spring.

Yes, Kilkenny's league final performance was the worst of the Brian Cody era -- but how much of that was purely down to Black-and-Amber malfunction?

Yes, Galway's performance in Tullamore two weeks ago was shapeless and clueless even by that county's notoriously fickle standards -- but how much of that can be laid at the door of John McIntyre and his players?

It's quite possible that all of us have focused too heavily on the woes of the vanquished rather than the wonderful improvement wrought by Daly and his co-selectors this year. It's as if Antrim last July never happened ... on second thoughts, maybe it's because of Antrim that Dublin are now a force to be reckoned with.

For all that, there are major obstacles facing Johnny McCaffrey & Co as they seek to etch their names in history for the second time in two months.

We'll start by referencing that league final match programme from May 1. Consider four of the names who didn't feature among Kilkenny's 26: Tommy Walsh, Michael Fennelly, Henry Shefflin and Richie Power.

Now consider who isn't available in any guise for Dublin tomorrow: Tomás Brady, Ryan O'Dwyer and David Treacy (a point-scoring sub in the league final).

Throw in the case study of Joey Boland, who exited that league final with a dislocated shoulder. Even though he came through last Sunday's training match return unscathed, people will inevitably wonder about the health of Joey's joint until it survives the type of robust inquisition that Kilkenny have long specialised in.

By any stretch of the imagination, the return of Kilkenny's decorated quartet in tandem with the player losses shipped by Dublin against Galway leave you wondering has the balance tilted decisively back in favour of the Cats?



Comeback

Between them, Kilkenny's four comeback kids have amassed 19 All Stars, three Hurler of the Year awards and God knows how many All-Ireland medals.

Shefflin is the record scorer in championship history and returned from his latest prolonged Battle of Wounded Knee with a near-flawless free-taking exhibition against Wexford.

Fennelly and Power also hit the ground running in Wexford Park: some observers now actually perceive the midfield powerhouse to be Kilkenny's most important current player, while Power emerged last season from under King Henry's shadow as their most potent attacker.

The feisty wonder that is Walsh didn't feature at all in their Leinster semi-final following the latest in a succession of shoulder problems, but the man himself insists that he's now fighting fit.

In hindsight, when you consider all the above absentees, is it any wonder Kilkenny struggled in that league final? The only surprise was the extent of their disarray in that 0-22 to 1-7 implosion.

This prompted inevitable doubts about their hunger for another All-Ireland assault, as well as grim conclusions that Kilkenny's fabled back-up was populated by mere mortals instead.



'Bejaysus'

The latter argument still holds: Brian Cody's bench is not one designed to scare the 'Bejaysus' out of Dublin. Even their starting full-back line, notably the usually stellar JJ Delaney and Jackie Tyrrell, looked distinctly vulnerable on those few occasions that Wexford managed to feed their inside forwards.

As for hunger? Well, we should have a much greater inkling by tomorrow evening, although in many respects this game is set up for Kilkenny to come out with camáns blazing.

Strange as it may sound, they owe Dublin big-time after losing the Walsh Cup final, being pegged back at the death when the sides drew in April, and finally that May 1 calamity.

If Kilkenny can't get up for this one, they never will.

Mind you, they must temper any gung-ho inclinations sufficiently to avoid a repeat of the league final meltdown that saw Eoin Larkin red-carded and John Dalton hit with a retrospective eight-week ban.

Dublin also ran into disciplinary trouble against Galway, and O'Dwyer now suffers the consequences. The Tipp man's brio will be badly missed, considering his workaholic 'Man of the Match' contribution in the league final.

Ditto with Brady, whose season-ending cruciate tear is a monumental blow for player and team. Yes, the jet-heeled Peter Kelly was superb when pressed into full-back duties against Galway, but it's still not his natural habitat and it wouldn't surprise to see Cody try and expose any positional vulnerability early doors by pushing Shefflin or Power straight onto the edge of the square.

For all the question marks arising from Dublin's missing men, their relative lack of big-game experience, their fetish for wides (recently half-cured!) and their worrying lack of goals, it would be utterly foolish to dismiss their prospects here.



Thrived

All season long, they've shipped injury after injury and still thrived. Daly put it neatly in his Evening Herald column yesterday, declaring: "If fellas have the right mental attitude, we can overcome all these things. Our players must realise that it's the sum of the parts rather than any individual component that is going to win or lose these big matches for you."

Therein lies the ultimate challenge for his players.

They've only lost once all year -- a league game against Galway that should have been theirs -- and even if that proud record doesn't survive tomorrow, Dublin will only go down after one hell of a fight.

ODDS: Dublin 11/4, Draw 10/1, Kilkenny 4/11

VERDICT: Kilkenny


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