SO here it is. The most important event of the weekend. The big one. On one side, the aristocrats. Steeped in tradition and royalty. On the other, the ‘new money’, seeking acceptance at the highest echelons of their surroundings. But enough about the Royal Wedding...
Tomorrow’s League final is a lot of things so we’ll lash out some of the clichés currently doing the rounds. Yes, it’s good for the game that Dublin are there. More importantly, it’s great for the game in Dublin that Dublin are there. It’s been something of a rite of passage that Dublin would finally make a League final too. As Anthony Daly put it during the week “the work is going on at the underage level. That has to pay dividends. We were in our first Leinster final two years ago for 19 years. Nowwe’re in our first League final since ’46. Next year is Dublin’s sixth year in Division 1. That’s it in black and white.”
Brian Cody was equally effusive in his praise for the emerging force that is Dublin hurling but in truth, it’s just about time to separate the analysis of the Dublin senior hurling team from the all-encompassing entity ‘Dublin hurling’.
Yes, Dublin hurling is on the rise across school, club and underage levels. And that, in turn, has generated a greater interest, better organisation and most importantly, a higher standard of player. Turning that into a successful senior hurling team is not anything like the foregone conclusion some have made it out to be and only this year are we seeing the first real signs of Dublin as a top-level hurling force.
So while the well-meaning but still semi-patronising pats on the head rain in from all around them, Dublin know that the most genuine admiration they can acquire from hurling’s privileged classes is by turning their good wishes into begrudging respect. And the only way Dublin are going to do that is by winning something big. Galway’s introduction into Leinster a couple of years back forced most to concede that Dublin would no longer be able to fluke a provincial crown simply by ‘catching Kilkenny on the hop’ and there remains a distance to be covered before they can be considered Liam MacCarthy contenders.
The League was always seen as a competition for Dublin to compete consistently rather than challenge for a title but their consistency this year has ensured a place in the final and a crack at Kilkenny. And given the scale of their stated ambition this year, what better challenge could there be? They’ve already scalped the Cats in a Walsh Cup final, forced a draw with them in the League and beaten Tipperary in Croke Park. That would ordinarily constitute a decent year but those achievements graze only on the foothills of Anthony Daly’s ambition.
Given their age profile and lack of experience of such occasions, Dublin are something of an unknown quantity ahead of tomorrow. Kilkenny less so. The Cats will take the field without a raft of players which, up until September, constituted the ‘greatest hurling team ever’. The players replacing them are still of Kilkenny standard, that is to say if they are good enough to make Cody’s squad, they’re good enough to play in a League final. Those that remain are of stellar calibre. Eddie Brennan, for instance, has been carrying the Cats’ attack in the past couple of rounds of the League while JJ Delaney’s return from suspension provides them with at least one of their all-conquering wingbacks.
And while Daly has been rightly keen to crush any talk that Kilkenny are in decline, there is little doubt that they are not the fresh, rounded, finished article they represented and this juncture two years ago. They might well be come summer, but they’re just not hitting those same heights yet. Dublin, meanwhile, are welcoming back a raft of injured parties, most of which would have been considered summer certainties but many of whom must now fight to earn a place after their absence unwittingly allowed another to come in and perform.
By and large, Dublin’s players have scaled new heights this spring, particularly up front where for all their wides in the last three games, they have at least been carving scoring chances against the best defences in the game. David O’Callaghan tormented Eoin Cadogan down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last time out and if the St Mark’s flyer can find a consistent run of form, his presence is invaluable.
Doubtless, the ball-winning prowess of both Ryan O’Dwyer and Conal Keaney have added a whole new dimension to the Dublin attack but so too has Daire Plunkett’s pace and Paul Ryan’s new-found zest for work. The Ballyboden sniper is the sharpest finisher in Dublin and if he gets opportunities close to goal, he’s likely to stick them away.
Dublin need a performance and given they haven’t failed to produce one all season, that isn’t expecting too much. Kilkenny’s superior nous might just shade it though.
ODDS: Dublin 2/1, Draw 10/1, Kilkenny 1/2