Figuring out a new puzzle
Waterford and Kilkenny have made slow starts to the league, losing their first two games. Is it a temporary blip or signs of a deeper malaise? Martin Breheny reports
It wasn't what anyone expected, least of all Kilkenny and Waterford supporters. It's round three weekend in the Allianz Hurling League and both counties are still waiting for their first point as they prepare for tomorrow's clash in Walsh Park.
Losing the first two games scarcely constitutes a crisis but it does attract attention when the counties involved are the greatest superpower in hurling history and last year's beaten All-Ireland finalists.
There's added intrigue surrounding Kilkenny who, since beating Waterford in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final replay, have won only three of 12 league and championship games.
That is territory they have not encountered for a very long time and never during Brian Cody's managerial residency.
Inevitably, it has drawn a different type of focus on Kilkenny than what generally applied at this time of year when the only question was whether anyone could dislodge them from the top spot. 'No' was the usual answer.
Now, the big question is where Kilkenny are headed this year and beyond. Predictions of their demise are easy to locate, even if they usually come with the proviso that 'you can never write off Kilkenny.'
So are they in serious decline or merely re-adjusting?
"It's interesting that people outside Kilkenny seem to have stronger opinions about us than we do ourselves. Kilkenny people are quite relaxed about the situation. We understand where we're at and have full faith in Brian (Cody) and the lads to work through it," said Eddie Keher.
As one of the best hurlers of all-time, there is little he doesn't know about the game and right now his instincts and experience are telling him that those who are predicting a Kilkenny slump might be doing it as much from wishful thinking as anything else.
"We have had a run, the likes of which was never seen before and Kilkenny people are grateful for that. Obviously, there have been changes to the panel and Brian is now trying to sort out what comes next.
"It's about blooding new players, giving them experience and taking it from there. Anyone who was in Nowlan Park for recent games would know how much the public are behind the team.
"Kilkenny people are patient. They like what they're seeing in terms of spirit and determination. There were a lot of good things to come out of the two league games against Cork and Clare, even if they lost both.
"The way they came back against Clare the last day was very encouraging. The wins will come," said Keher.
Whether the first arrives tomorrow will ensure a huge turn-out at Walsh Park as Waterford attempt to record a third successive league win over Kilkenny.
They do so after suffering seven- and nine-point defeats against Wexford and Tipperary respectively, setbacks which demand a quick response if they are not to slip towards 1B.
Of course, that's no longer a major blow for any squad. The last three league winners all came from the second tier and Galway's took it a stage further by winning the All-Ireland after finishing second in 1B.
Waterford's unusual approach to the first two games this season suggests that after reaching two finals (winning one) in 2015 and 2016 and last year's quarter-final, they are much less engaged with the league this time.
Derek McGrath selected two vastly different teams for the games against Wexford and Tipperary, having decided on that course before the start of the league.
He used no subs against Wexford, explaining that it was important to get serious work into the starting 15.
Essentially, Waterford gave it their best shot, but once the game ran away from them against opposition who clearly had more work done, they used it as a training spin.
Tipperary beat them by nine points in the second game, with McGrath again hinting that the league was no more than part of a longer-term plan.
"We wouldn't feel arrogant enough to treat the league in a flippant manner but based on guys playing three or four games in the last few weeks, we'll approach it in the way that suits us," he said.
Former Waterford star, Shane Ahearne, who contributes as an analyst alongside commentator Kieran O'Connor on local station WLR, said that McGrath was clearly hinting to supporters not to expect too much from the league.
Having reached last year's All-Ireland final, the pursuit of the Liam MacCarthy Cup is really all that matters this year.
"I'm not sure any manager wants to go flat out for the league this year as it involves playing eight games in eight weeks. Some lads are involved in the Fitzgibbon Cup as well.
"It's a crazy schedule. We keep hearing about burnout and then we get a fixture list like that.
"The new system in the provincial championships is at the back of everyone's mind too. It will demand a different approach than in previous years," said Ahearne.
He has serious reservations about the new format, not necessarily the 'round robin' format but the timing.
"Two teams will be gone from the Munster and Leinster championships by the middle of June. How can that be good for the game?
"Hopefully, it won't happen but if Waterford finished in the bottom two in Munster, they would be out of the championship by June 17. They didn't have their first championship game last year until June 18.
"There are only ten teams in this year's All-Ireland championship and four of them will be gone by June 17. I can't see how that makes sense," said Ahearne.
He doesn't expect Waterford to miss the cut, but neither is he anticipating too much from them in the league.
"They'll want to avoid relegation but even if it happens I don't think it will do any real damage going into the championship. Galway were quite happy in 1B last year.
"In many ways, it can be better for team-building. You'll get a few tough games and a few easier ones where you can experiment," he said.
Still, whatever about Waterford's ultimate fate, tomorrow's game is certain to get their full attention.
"Nothing brings a Waterford team to the boil like playing Kilkenny. And with both teams having lost their first two games, this will be a real battle," said Ahearne.
He has heard the talk of Kilkenny's supposed decline but takes no notice of it.
"They might not be where they were some years back but no one should have worries about Kilkenny. They are in transition now but there's no better county to do it quickly."
Tomorrow's winners will be right back in the mix for a knockout place while the losers will drift towards the relegation zone, especially if Cork and Tipperary (two points each) win their games.
Kilkenny have noted Waterford's sluggish start to the campaign but are convinced that the sight of black-and-amber will change the mindset.
"I'm hearing that we will see a different Waterford on Sunday and I have no doubt we will," said Keher.