Friday 23 August 2019

Frank Roche: 'Noreside history is against the Dubs - but this could be their time'

Kilkenny casualties fuel the doubts about Cody mortals

Dublin manager Mattie Kenny. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Dublin manager Mattie Kenny. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Frank Roche

EVEN in the unscientific business of hurling previews, there are certain immutable rules never to be broken.

Rule No 1: When in doubt, tip Kilkenny. Rule No 2: If still in doubt, don’t even think about tipping Dublin against them.

Ignore history at your peril! Overlook Cody at your cost!

So it is with tomorrow night’s fascinating opening salvo in the Leinster SHC round-robin series.

This writer’s gut instinct? Dublin might never have a better chance to skin the Cats on enemy soil. But then what of those age-old rules? Not to mention Brian Cody’s gift for getting his team in the right shape and mentality for summer hurling.

The atmosphere should be febrile. Knowing their team is denuded by injury, coming after an indifferent league and no longer the invincible force of old, home fans will heavily outnumber Dublin in the stands.

But can the visitors make it count where it matters?

First up, a brief history lesson. Dublin haven’t beaten Kilkenny in championship at Nowlan Park since the 1942 Leinster final - albeit that translates into just six defeats in 77 years.

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Of greater relevance is the recent SHC history, all predating Mattie Kenny’s appointment.

Dublin’s finest hour against Cody was the 2013 Leinster semi-final replay in Portlaoise. Here, abiding by the foolproof rules, you’d never have tipped the Dubs against reigning All-Ireland champions ... especially since Kilkenny never lost replays. Until that famous day.

Since then, the old order has been reasserted and Kilkenny romped to double-digit victories over Dublin in 2014 and ‘16.

Onto Parnell Park last May. The result may have been the ‘same old, same old’ but the narrative was very different. When Chris Crummey landed an inspirational point in the 61st minute, the hosts led by five.

How did they lose from there? Several factors stood out ...

* Conal Keaney’s cruel injury exit robbed the Dublin attack of its powerhouse inspiration and freed up Cillian Buckley to storm into the game.

* A glut of first half misses prevented Dublin from turning first half dominance into an even more emphatic lead.

* Kilkenny’s match-winning DNA, encapsulated in Liam Blanchfield’s poacher’s goal in injury-time after a free-out was missed by officialdom.

You might ask what has Donnycarney last year got to do with Nowlan Park (under a new Dublin manager) this year? But there has been a certain continuity, starting with a defence that has emerged as Dublin’s defiant bedrock.

In their four round-robin ties last summer, that Blanchfield strike was the only goal conceded. In seven league games this spring, they leaked five. Cian O’Callaghan’s hamstring injury has been a blow, but Kenny’s defensive personnel and set-up are established and very hard to break down.

They’ll need to be in the company of Colin Fennelly (if in the zone) and TJ Reid (who invariably is). Countering that, Crummey, Seán Moran and especially Eoghan O’Donnell have the physique, athleticism and hurling smarts to make life claustrophobic for their hosts.

Finding the right balance at midfield and up front has been more problematic, but Kenny’s reversion to a centrefield axis of Seán Treacy and Darragh O’Connell makes sense.

Injuries have impacted on their attacking difficulties, with Conal Keaney, Mark Schutte and Liam Rushe missing for much or all of the league. Schutte’s latest shoulder setback is another ill-timed blow; Keaney is on the bench but Rushe, such a wrecking-ball influence 12 months ago, will start.

Just as critical will be Danny Sutcliffe’s presence on the ‘40’ and Eamon Dillon’s ability to penetrate closer to goal. Dublin need their main attacking men to fire ... but in their favour, a litany of injuries have left Kilkenny particularly vulnerable at the back.

Minus the inspirational Eoin Murphy in goal, Cody has been forced to juggle stretched defensive resources in the absence of Conor Delaney, Joey Holden and Buckley.

Despite all this, and for many sound historical reasons, Kilkenny are favourites here. But whereas an away defeat would not be fatal for the Dubs, a famous victory could open up their summer.

VERDICT: Dublin

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