Buckley: We were nowhere near the pace of it last year
Relegation from the league's top tier looked a distinct possibility when Kilkenny's hurlers lost their opening two fixtures but Cillian Buckley insists calm remained around the banks of the Nore despite claims of their demise.
Narrow defeats to Cork and Clare left them facing "an uphill battle" but the gauntlet was laid down by 11-time All-Ireland-winning manager Brian Cody and his new-look Cats have responded in fine style.
Talk of Cody's days being numbered and a long period of transition look wide of the mark as they bounced back with five straight wins and Buckley paid little heed to any of the negative comment after the early rounds.
"There wasn't any real notice given to it being honest. Any of them comments over the years we try and stay away from anything like that. We were in a training plan, a training process," the Kilkenny captain said.
"You're disappointed when you're losing games, you want to win games and you're p***ed off come the Tuesday night back in training but we definitely saw an improvement in that third league game against Waterford.
"That gave us the confidence that we knew there was a performance there. There was a squad there and we kind of built on it since but (there was) definitely no sense of worry.
"There was no sense of any panic or anything like that. It was early in the year and we got back to winning ways," added Buckley.
The Cats are back in a familiar place - against old foes Tipperary in Sunday's Allianz HL final on home soil in Nowlan Park - but it's anything but the same old Kilkenny, with young guns including Richie Leahy, Enda Morrissey, Martin Keoghan and John Donnelly all shining.
It is also a far cry from the traditional 'grip and whip' style and aerial bombardment which served them well during the golden age of the noughties as Cody's men adapt to the changing demands of the game with a more measured approach by working the ball through the lines.
"It's probably happened unknown to ourselves that we're doing it and we're becoming more confident because of that. It hasn't been a big thing in our training or anything like that but it's something that all teams are doing at this stage, possession has become more important than ever," 25-year-old Buckley explained.
"It used to be to get the ball as far away from your goal as possible. Possession has become more important than that, holding on to possession in your own half of the field."
Winning his first Kilkenny SHC with Dicksboro helped offset the disappointment of a dismal 2017 season with the Cats and Buckley found it "a bit sickening" watching on as the championship kept rolling on without them.
"You have to face up to it and acknowledge that we were nowhere near the pace of it last year. I suppose thoughts went into it over the winter and everyone is gunning to get up to the standards and the pace that Galway have set," the biomechanical engineer said.
"It's just facing the challenges and doing a bit more over winter which we had time to do compared to other years. We're thereabouts in the mix again and building to hopefully take it on a bit better than we did last year."
Former Hurler of the Year Richie Hogan is unavailable as he continues his recovery from a persistent back injury but Buckley is delighted to be back in the league final, a building block for a strong summer showing.
"Teams that are showing their form earlier on in the league go on and carry it through and have a good championship campaign," he said.