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Franks out to fix faithful fragility

IT was a long time coming -- far too long. When an understrength Offaly scalped an even more 'experimental' Kilkenny nearly a month ago, it represented the Faithful's first triumph over those pesky Cats since the 1998 All-Ireland final.

They won by 1-16 to 1-13. Better still, they won with a late flourish, coming from behind to land the last five points.

In the process, two 21st century stereotypes were turned on their head: that Kilkenny always come good in the end (they actually failed to score for the last 17 minutes) and that Offaly invariably seize up in the home straight (they didn't).

Now for the inevitable caveats. Kilkenny had just John Tennyson and Richie Hogan from last September's starting 15; moreover, it was January and the Walsh Cup. Now it's February and the National League.



INKLING

Offaly have a fair inkling what to expect when travelling to Nowlan Park this Sunday ... and, suffice to say, it won't be the accommodating Black-and-Amber version that came to O'Connor Park last month.

Not that Offaly are complaining. Life in Division Two last spring was a lopsided mirage and, Wexford apart, the opposition weren't remotely up to speed to prepare you for the hothouse conditions of championship.

So it transpired -- the only difference last summer being that Leinster ambitions were snuffed out by Wexford, not Kilkenny. Cue the qualifiers and another familiar Faithful lament: Offaly stuck to Cork through a close-fought first half only to fade away and lose by 3-19 to 1-12.

Something similar happened last Sunday, when Joe Dooley's men marked their return to Division One with a feisty first half that saw them level with Cork at the break -- only to end up losing by 11.

Denis Walsh suggested afterwards that the margin flattered his team, whose lead was pared to just two points after Shane Dooley's 58th minute goal. But as Dooley Snr ruefully conceded: "It's all about the second half."

Even here, though, David Franks spied hope that Offaly may be taking the first steps to correct these recurring second half collapses. Now 30, the redoubtably sticky defender was carrying hurls at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, having only resumed training at the end of January following rehab on a groin problem.

"You could go back through a lot of the Offaly games, the last two or three years, and it's something that we have to address," he conceded.

"And maybe, last weekend, we were getting to 62-63 minutes ... and we're hoping that in the next few weekends, playing in Division One, it will get us up to the level that we need."

Franks can't quite put his finger on any one reason for this fadeout tendency, apart from the possibility that it stems from their relative youth.

"I don't know whether it's experience. It couldn't be fitness, with their training. I think lads just have to concentrate for the whole 70 minutes, and not let teams rack up big scores in a short space of time," he surmises.

Ger Oakley has been around even longer -- as the sole survivor from '98 -- and he didn't mince his words in a recent interview.

In the wake of their Walsh Cup win over Kilkenny, the veteran defender said he was "sick of hearing" the cliché that Offaly are in transition; that they possessed the hurlers to compete at a higher level; that it was a "mental block"; and that it was time Offaly "stood up and were counted".



STIRRING

Stirring words, but stirring actions will also be needed at Nowlan Park this Sunday (2.30). Especially as Offaly's last two Leinster championship encounters with the Cats have followed a predictable script.

In 2007, they trailed by only a point at the midpoint but lost by 14. Twelve months later they were six adrift at the break, having just conceded a goal, and ended up losing by 18.

"Kilkenny have set the bar and it's up to all other teams to come up to that bar," Franks points out. And the Ballyskenagh native knows this better than any Offaly man, for he lives in Kilkenny and has hurled with Carrickshock for the past four years.

"All the clubs in the senior championship are very, very competitive," he reflects. "I know Ballyhale have won the last four, but if you take any of the other nine or 10 teams in it, they all could beat each other on any given day.

"So it makes their club structure very competitive. And the emphasis down there is all hurling -- football takes a back seat, and every young lad wants to just play hurling.

"With the structures they've put in place with their development squads, you can see why they have success at senior level."

When the Evening Herald caught up with Franks this week, he wasn't sure if he'd be in the match-day squad this weekend.

He is less than a month back training and, while the groin has been trouble-free, he is playing catch-up on his colleagues.

Question is, will Kilkenny be playing catch-up too? The two postponements of their glamour clash with Tipperary could, in theory, leave the four-in-a-row All-Ireland kingpins a tad rusty.

"Kilkenny are Kilkenny," Franks cautions. "I know they have played only the Walsh Cup this year, but their players throughout the winter would mind themselves, they'd be in gyms. And you might have five or six new lads playing next Sunday -- but those new lads might have a couple of All-Ireland senior medals as subs, and a couple of U21 and minor All-Irelands.

"Any time you go out against Kilkenny, you are going to get a tough game. We're looking forward to it -- it's a good league for us to be in, Division One, because at the end of the seven games we'll know where we stand in hurling terms," he concludes.


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