All-Ireland race is wide open, claims Fennelly
Retired star believes Cats are set for championship roar
There are parts of Michael Fennelly that would love nothing more than to sprint out in Parnell Park on Sunday - eyes wide, nerves as taut as piano wire, adrenaline surging through his system - for the annual reminder that in the long, drawn-out game of life, nothing makes you feel quite so alive as the championship.
Then again, there are parts of him that want no part of the fast-paced, full-contact collision between Dublin and Kilkenny - like, for example, his lower back.
An eight-time All-Ireland winner with Kilkenny, Fennelly retired from inter-county hurling last December at the age of 32. "I feel my body has surpassed its limits," he said at the time, an acceptance that when it came to inter-county hurling, the toll to his health no longer made it a trip worth taking.
He has continued to play with his club, Ballyhale Shamrocks, and as Fennelly prepares for a summer of spectating, there's very few scars left to heal - mental or physical.
"It's not too bad," he says. "Earlier on in the year I was struggling with the back, but training is not as fierce these days. I'm not training at that intensity any more, not throwing myself into rucks and knocks and hits."
He's kept himself too busy to truly consider the void in his life after inter-county hurling - Fennelly lectures in sports science at LIT, is completing a PhD and continues to train three or four nights a week with his club - but the truth is he appears just as content without it.
"It's a lot more chilled out," he says. "I'm definitely missing it a bit but I'm happy with where I'm at, which is good because if I had regrets that wouldn't be the case."
These days he's preparing to dissect games as a TV analyst with Sky Sports, which yesterday unveiled the 20 live fixtures it will broadcast during the championship. "This is a nice transition," he says. "You're still talking about hurling, still involved."
So what, then, does he make of Sunday's clash, which will see the Cats pitch up at Parnell Park for the first time in 20 years for the first of their four round robin games in the Leinster Championship?
"It's always a tough place to play," says Fennelly. "Any time we've played there, we've always found it difficult and Dublin always seem to perform there.
"They're not as big as they used to be, but I think our team is a lot lighter as well, a lot smaller. The games seem to have gotten a lot faster so you can expect a lot of that on Sunday - a lot of running with the ball and off the ball."
There was a time when such a fixture was little more than a formality for Brian Cody's men, a morning stretch as the Cats prepared for a proper challenge, but their fallibility has been exposed too many times in recent years to take this for granted.
Kilkenny are just third favourites for the All-Ireland behind Tipperary and Galway, and while morale was certainly boosted by their league final victory over Tipp last month, Fennelly knows arriving to the championship with that title is a lot like going to a night club in a suit: it might help your case but it sure as hell doesn't guarantee success.
"People are probably getting carried away with winning the league, they'd want to be more mindful of what it is. There is a nice championship feel to it but if you're going in with your eyes closed, you could get caught out quite quickly. Kilkenny will be on guard."
As the championship engine starts to rumble, it's difficult to conceive just how troubled Kilkenny appeared to be a few months back, when they started the league campaign with two losses - cause for concern in any other county, cause for crisis talks in Kilkenny.
After Cody had rejigged his charges and taken down Tipp by six points in the final, the manager spoke without a hint of triumphalism, only saying that the real work was about to begin.
A cadre of younger players have been assimilated alongside seasoned performers like Cillian Buckley, TJ Reid and Walter Walsh, though injuries have been a chronic affliction, with Richie Hogan's status still unclear.
"It's a nightmare," says Fennelly. "Richie Leahy tore his hamstring two or three times, James Maher broke his jaw from the belt of a sliotar and the year before he broke his kneecap. We've been riddled with injuries the last couple of years, but now they seem to have gone on a bit of a run so they're stronger. Richie [Hogan] has a good head for it but his body seems to be letting him down at the moment and the back seems to be causing him trouble."
Reid helped himself to 15 points in the league final, and if Kilkenny are to flourish again in the championship, Fennelly believes they will need him to be on the pitch for all the big games.
"They are reliant on him. He's playing nearly the best hurling of his career. He's always been consistent and very, very good. But he's at another level at the moment. If TJ got an injury, that would be a huge concern for Kilkenny. He thrives on pressure, especially when the confidence is up."
Fennelly's younger brother Colin and Paul Murphy are both expected to soon rejoin the side after the Army pair's tour of duty in Lebanon, though having returned from several such lengthy absences - usually through injury - Fennelly cautions that they will take some time to adjust to the bruising nature of the championship.
"Those rucks are very, very tough," he says. "You can't train for that on your own. You need game-time so it will take a bit more time to get up to speed."
When gauging All-Ireland chances, there's always a bit of guesswork at this time of year, and for all his accepted bias when Fennelly scans the horizon, he struggles to spot a leader of the pack.
"It's a hell of a lot more open than it ever was," he says. "I haven't seen Galway hurl at all, Tipperary are struggling in terms of full-back, corner-back, they've a few injuries as well and are struggling with confidence, so it's very open."
Dublin will also be short-handed on Sunday, with a quartet of Cuala players opting out of the inter-county set-up for a variety of reasons, something Fennelly finds hard to imagine when he reflects on his own career.
"God, you'd never question to go back to play for Kilkenny, but nowadays I'm finding 21-, 22-, 23-year-olds have a different outlook on things. Sport is not the be all and end all, compared to where we were, so people have to understand that."
Over the years, he saw that change in his time at Ballyhale, and also with Kilkenny, and though injuries happen, great players grow old and the wheel of inter-county talent keeps turning, Fennelly knows that with Cody at the helm, Kilkenny will always play to a certain level, that the whole will always be greater than the sum of its parts.
"Brian's mindset is always good and it keeps lads focused on just doing their own jobs," he says. "It's coming together nicely."