DUBLIN v KILKENNY
(Croke Park, Today 5.0)
WONDERS will never cease. Kilkenny didn't get to play a single game in Croke Park during 2013. Now, barely a month into the new year, they return to their old stomping ground – not for championship or even league, but the more prosaic circumstance of the Bord na Mona Walsh Cup.
The sight of those Sky Blue jerseys in the opposition camp will doubtless lend a frisson of motivational edge to Brian Cody and his still-wounded Cats.
Dublin were the history-blazing upstarts who initiated Kilkenny's death-by-a-thousand-cuts last summer; they had the temerity, not merely to draw with the then All-Ireland champions, but to subsequently shatter the old stereotype that you should never give your short-odds nemesis a second chance.
Those two Dublin/Kilkenny clashes set the revolutionary agenda for the most remarkable hurling championship ever. They both took place in Portlaoise, not GAA headquarters where – historically – Cody has generally had the whip hand over Dublin during the first five years of Anthony Daly's tenure.
There have been exceptions to this Black-and-Amber Croker rule – most notably when Dublin demolished a depleted Kilkenny in the 2011 league final, but also in that year's regulation encounter which finished in thrilling stalemate, courtesy of Paul Ryan's spectacular injury-time equaliser.
Ryan has been in prolific form this past fortnight, accumulating 3-16 (all bar 1-1 from placed balls) during Dublin's first two Walsh Cup outings against UCD and then Wexford in Gorey.
Yet it's the form of another dead-eyed free-taker, Henry Shefflin, that will most intrigue neutral onlookers this evening.
Shefflin tallied 0-13 (including 12 flawless frees) as Kilkenny emerged from the tempest-like conditions in Freshford last Sunday with a 1-24 to 0-15 victory over Galway. But it wasn't the number in brackets after his name, rather the flashes of creative ring craft and his physical sharpness, that caught the eye.
Cody's post-match assessment of the King? "Decent." Heaven help the opposition when Shefflin is shooting the lights out.
But after last year's injury traumas – incongruously crowned by that rescinded red card against Cork – it will be fascinating to see how his 2014 form graph unfolds, especially if he avoids the serious injuries that have nobbled a succession of spring campaigns. As his manager ominously noted: "He's in great shape. Essentially it's the first pre-season he has had in four years, to be able to get out there and do it and give himself a chance."
Last Sunday's ultimately emphatic result is a statement in itself, suggesting Cody has his men primed to hit the ground running at an earlier stage than was the norm when Kilkenny wintered with Liam MacCarthy and holidayed en masse in the January sun.
Their line-up against Galway was a blend of veterans with a point to prove and wannabes craving Cody's approval.
Dublin, by the same token, have mixed young and old to good effect and two of the former – promising minor graduates Cian O'Callaghan and Colm Cronin – are recalled here.
The two Cuala rookies had impressed on their debuts against UCD, O'Callaghan showing an unruffled poise at corner-back, Cronin clipping 0-2 from wing-forward, while putting William Egan on the back foot before the Corkman eventually walked for a second yellow.
All told, Daly has made six changes from the team that squeezed past Wexford and notwithstanding the inclusion of O'Callaghan and Cronin, the overall effect is a more seasoned starting 15. Stephen Hiney, skipper Johnny McCaffrey and David O'Callaghan are all included, doubtless with one eye on the fact that a Kilkenny team still smarting from last summer's bloody nose will up the ante considerably on what has gone before against UCD and Wexford.
For Dublin to prevail, they will require Conal Keaney to carry on in the same inspirational vein that visibly lifted Dublin during the third quarter in Gorey. They will probably need another hefty haul from Ryan too.
But the bookies, clearly impressed by last weekend's semi-final statement, fancy the visitors and we can understand their logic.
BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Dublin 2/1, Draw 10/1, Kilkenny 4/9