Success by no means assured

AND now for the difficult second album.

Everything went so swimmingly well for the Kingdom's hurlers during the National League – against all expectations – that hopes are, understandably, high that they might re-claim the Christy Ring Cup.

A look at the league table tells you that Kerry are the top ranked side in the competition. Ahead of Wicklow, Derry and Kildare in Division 2A. Ahead of Meath, Down, Mayo and Armagh in Division 2B. They were also the top ranked team ahead of last year's Christy Ring and we all know how that ended – with two defeats in the space of a week and the resignation of the manager. No we don't expect that to happen this time around – for one thing, even were they to lose both games, Tom Howard is going nowhere - we say it just to make the point that it could.

It's not as if Kerry were altogether that far ahead of Kildare and Wicklow during the league. A Shane Nolan screamer set them up for a narrow victory in Newbridge and an intervention off the bench from Willie O'Dwyer was required to see off Wicklow in Austin Stack Park. The margins at this level is fine. The difference between Division 2A and Division 2B is nothing like the gulf in standard between Division 1B and Division 2A.

2B was claimed by the reigning Christy Ring Cup champions and Leinster championship outfit London. If London were in the Christy Ring again this year they'd be favourites. Pay little attention to the division they were competing in, they're upwardly mobile – the recession has, clearly, done wonders for London hurling (and football too, remember their magnificent run in the qualifiers a couple of years ago?).

The team London defeated in the 2B final, Meath, are dark horses for this title. After all they were the only team to defeat London during the league. In fact they gave them a decent trimming 2-17 to 1-11 on their home turf and only lost out in the final by a couple of points. They'd be no soft touches for Kerry that's for sure. Home or away. And given Kerry's luck it's more likely to be away as not.

There's something wrong with the system when it sees a county consistently playing away from home. You can count the number of games Kerry have played in the Christy Ring in Austin Stack Park in recent seasons on one hand. The most high profile was the 2009 semi-final with Carlow and the only reason that game came to Stack Park was because the Kingdom forced an heroic draw in the drawn game in Carlow.

They've been drawn away from home in their first game in the competition in each of the last four years. In 2010 they were away to Down in their first game. In 2011 they were away to Kildare.

In 2012 they were away to Wicklow and on Saturday they're away to Down. Okay it's as simple as the luck of the draw, but that still doesn't make it fair.

Surely some sort of system could be put in place to ensure a home draw for a team if they were drawn away from home a couple of times in succession? It's difficult enough to get supporters into Austin Stack Park to support the hurlers, near impossible to get them to travel to Ulster for a game. Particularly one that won't make or break their side's season.

You'd prefer they won this weekend's game, of course. If there's one thing we've learned about this Kerry hurling side, however, is that they've got serious bottle. They don't wilt, they don't feel sorry for themselves, they keep on hurling to the very last minute, to the very last breath. Of all the qualities they've demonstrated during this initial phase of Tom Howard's tenure as Kerry boss that is the single most encouraging.

It was evident in just their second game under his leadership against Davy Fitzgerald's Limerick IT. It was evident in their defeat at the hands of Laois in Portlaoise. It was evident in those narrow victories over Derry, Wicklow and Kildare. Under the cosh they keep going. They keep their heads up, they keep on doing what they do. They don't get flustered. No doubt there will be times during this championship when other teams give them plenty of reasons to get flustered. As long as they hold their heads they should be alright.

It's a quite remarkable thing to see in such a young side. They've got good heads on their shoulders these young lads. Tommy Barrett and Daniel Collins and Brendan O'Leary have demonstrated great maturity as well as ability. They draw strength from the more experienced players on the team – Tom Murnane, John Griffin, Darren Dineen – and that's the thing isn't it. There's a nice blend of youth and experience on this team.

It trends younger than any other Kerry team for quite some time. It does so out of necessity. Howard is a manager who appreciates what experience can bring to the table as well as youthful enthusiasm. That's why he welcomed Liam Boyle back into the fold with open arms. He's not only one of the best hurlers in the county, he's a steadying influence. When Kerry were showing a worrying tendency to give up goals, he was drafted back into the team as soon as possible (after no more than one or two training sessions).

Boyle didn't come back just to make up the numbers. He didn't come back to provide a steadying influence. He came back to win and that's what Kerry must do.

Anything else will be considered, by the players, by the management, by the supporters, as a failure. That's not to say they're raging hot favourites and that they absolutely should be winning this competition. They've got a chance that's all.

Failure is probably too harsh a word to use should Kerry not win the Christy Ring. The progress made during the league won't have evaporated overnight, the potential of Tommy Barrett and Brendan O'Leary will still be there, but these are competitive beings these Kerry players. They know that you need both the carrot and the stick. The carrot is victory in Croke Park. The stick is failure to do just that.

The next few weeks are about doing absolutely everything they can to ensure that doesn't happen.


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