Hurlers braced for big battle on home turf
Three points, after a late Kildare rally threatened to overhaul the Kingdom. The Lilywhites were left desperately disappointed. They had enough possession, enough territory, to win that league game. They had the edge physically, yet they found Tom Howard's men a tough nut to crack.
Liam Boyle and Darragh O'Connell were heroic in their defence. The day belonged, however, to Shane Nolan. He scored 2-10, 2-2 from play and one of those goals was, arguably, amongst the finest goals scored in any division in this year's National Hurling League. He was at a different level to any other player on the pitch in St Conleth's Park. Kerry needed him to be. They'll need him to play to a similar level again on Saturday afternoon.
"If you think back and you take Shane Nolan's goals out of the game you have to say we'd have been in a bit of trouble," team boss Tom Howard admits.
"You could look at it another way and say that at one point we were six or seven points ahead and let a lead slip. We probably had a better balance, but they were stronger. We probably got a better return out of our attacks than they did on the day, but a flip of a coin that can all change.
"If they don't give away the two goals like they did the last day, if they defend better and they get a better return on their shots and last Saturday [against Wiclow] would suggest that they have sharpened up in front of goal. There's no doubt these lads can hurl."
Both teams might approach the game somewhat differently, but, when it comes down to it, there isn't that much of a differnce between these two sides.
Kerry are, we would argue, the more skillful side. The side the relies more on pace and guile and stickwork. Kildare are bigger and stronger and play to those strengths. That's what they did in Newbridge just a couple of weeks ago. That's what they'll look to do in Austin Stack Park.
Thankfully, from Kerry's point of view, Stack Park isn't nearly as tight a ground as St Conleth's Park. Kerry will be able to spray it wide and find much more space for themselves there than they did in Kildare's backyard. Not that Kildare's inherent strengths will desert them.
"I saw the game on Saturday between themselves and Wickow and there's no doubt these fellas can hurl," Howard says.
"They showed in Newbridge that they can hurl. It's not their fault that they have a tight field. My sense of it is, if you asked them, they'd much prefer playing in a big open field and they won't be at all disappointed with playing the game in Tralee, because I think it suits them, they're big and athletic and rangy and I think the bigger field will suit them.
"The played Wicklow in Arklow last week and that suited Wickow's game more than it suited Kildare's. The point you make about them scoring more freely is definitely true. They took a while to get their eye in, they had nine wides in the first half, but they only registered two wides in the second half so they were very economical with their use of the ball.
"They're good hurlers. They move the ball nice and lively. My sense of it is the open field in Tralee will suit them, suit them as much as it'll suit us. It augurs fora good game, two good hurling teams, two teams that want to hurl will make for a good game."
Kildare closed out Kerry's half-forward line in the league match and with much the same personnel available to them for this game – both Niall Ó Muineacháin and Paudie Reidy retain their places in the wing-back berths with Mark Moloney (who played at midfield against Kerry) moving to centre-back – they'll look to do the same this time around. That has to be a bit of a worry for Kerry.
They didn't have the best of times of it on the half-forward line last time out against Derry (in the first half at least). Then again they should be stronger there this week. They didn't have Brendan O'Leary available to them for the Derry game, this time they do. They have the option of playing John Egan on the wing or, perhaps, even in the middle after his stunning turn out around the middle during the second half in Round 2A and Gary O'Brien looks to be coming back to some real form at the moment.
The Kildare full-back line looks more vulnerable. John Doran, who Shane Nolan skinned for his first goal in that league match, remains in situ at number 2 as does full-back Fiachra Ó Muineacháin and number four Patrick Curtin. If Kerry can get possession on the half-forward line, if they hit Aidan Boyle with the type of ball he thrives on, the Kingdom should be capable of getting the scores they need to win this game.
And that is key. In Newbridge, Kildare didn't make nearly enough use of the possession at their disposal. You can put that down to good Kerry defending, equally you can put that down to a hesitancy on their part. They tended to take the ball on a little too much, take the extra step, the extra yard and ended up shooting themselves in the foot as a result. They seem to have remedied that in the meantime.
Last weekend they pucked an impressive 0-17 in Arklow and after last year Kerry know all about how difficult it is to go to Wicklow and get a result in the Christy Ring Cup. They had a nice spread of scores too, seven in all. The lion's share of the scores came from a couple of old reliables – Gerry Keegan (who scored four points already this year against Kerry) and David Harney, who picked up two yellow cards in Arklow, in the corners.
Keegan gave young Patrick O'Keeffe a torrid time of it in Newbridge, but with Rory Horgan now manning the number two jersey Keegan, probably, won't enjoy this game as much. Paud Costello's return to the fold is another boost to the Kingdom – tempered as it is by the loss for the rest of the campaign of Tommy Barrett.
This game, most certainly, won't be an easy one. The two teams were too close the last time they met for it to be anything but a dogfight. On this occasion, however, with home advantage, with the players they now have available to them, Kerry should, just about, be capable of advancing to their third Christy Ring Cup final in four years.
Kerry team (possible): Bernard Rochford, Rory Horgan, Liam Boyle, Paud Costello, Darragh O'Connell, Tom Murnane, Darren Dinnen, John Griffin, Daniel Collins, Colm Marty, Gary O'Brien, John Egan, Willie O'Dwyer, Aidan Boyle, Shane Nolan