Monday 19 February 2018

Kilkenny conveyor belt still churning out talent

James Maher scored four points on his first senior start for Kilkenny against Tipperary Photo: Sportsfile
James Maher scored four points on his first senior start for Kilkenny against Tipperary Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Kilkenny are upright and marching again, after their first-round wobble in Walsh Park, with Galway, a familiar foe, next in their crosshairs. Beating Tipperary will never lose its appeal for a Kilkenny follower and it was perhaps no accident that the game two weeks ago shifted gear following a dangerous incident in the lead-in to half-time.

Padraic Maher's reckless neck-high challenge on TJ Reid seemed to raise the local heckles and from there to the interval the texture of the game changed. Kilkenny toughened and raised the heat, their backs cleaning out the Tipp forwards in the five minutes that remained before the short whistle. Did they take umbrage? They were entitled to, the referee showing undue leniency in delivering a yellow card for the offence.

In that brief spell the backs had added spring in their heels. Every ball that went into their half was treated like an act of provocation, swept up and cleared back downfield in indignation. Four points down, their attacking play warmed to the increased intensity and they reeled off three quick scores. Reid, undeterred by the incident, was involved in some of those late raids, which is nothing new for one of the best hurlers in the country, but the other central figure might have had you checking the programme. James Maher, starting his first match, scored two of three Kilkenny pre-interval points, and finished with four on the day.

With a few exceptions, most hurlers in Brian Cody's time have had to show patience in nailing a place in the team, even Reid, and while Maher is not going to be considered a shoo-in on the basis of one league game, and some very loose policing, he made his mark. Scoring points, Cody might say matter-of-factly, is what he is picked to do, but his work-rate was equally laudable, and his influence appeared to grow in those moments when the team needed it most. He was part of Kilkenny's extended panel last year, after captaining St Kieran's College to an All-Ireland in 2014.

"He came in for a few minutes against Waterford but it was impossible to play that day (with poor weather)," says St Lachtains PRO Paddy Butler where Maher plays his hurling. "I suppose for a young lad in his first match the last day, he really stood up to the plate. Sunday will be a big test. That is if he is playing. The surprise is gone now."

Scoring four points on your first full start would normally ensure you keep your place but this is Kilkenny and it is less than a year since Kevin Kelly won man of the match with 1-9 against Clare in the league and didn't play a week later against the same opposition. Kelly hasn't seen much action since then but weighed in with two goals and a point against Tipp. Maher will have closer attention to deal with, and raised expectation, when he comes up against Galway today.

Maher will be judged over time but he's young and exciting at a time when the loss of Ger Aylward to long-term injury and Richie Power to retirement, and the ongoing unavailability of Eoin Larkin, reduces the attacking pool. He comes from good stock, being the grandson of the late Pa Dillon, and daughter of former Kilkenny camogie full-back Gillian Dillon. He has experience of defensive and midfield positions, is a talented middle distance runner and was a part of UCD's Fitzgibbon Cup campaign this year. Outside of the four points he racked up against Tipp, he hit one wide off the stick on the run, and a snap-shot for goal was deflected wide. He was, indisputably, one of the main reasons Tipp's prospects of an overdue win against Kilkenny foundered. There is little Tipp don't know about Kilkenny at this stage but in ticking the boxes in their preparations they may have placed less emphasis on Kilkenny's young wing-forward.

His father Noel Maher played with Graigue-Ballycallan and was a sub on the Kilkenny minor team which beat Cork in the 1988 All-Ireland final with an inside forward line of Adrian Ronan, Charlie Carter and DJ Carey. Pa Dillon is one of Kilkenny's most enduring names whose nephew Taggy Fogarty was man of the match in the 2006 All-Ireland final against Cork. Less renowned was Pa's son, Bobby, who also won an All-Ireland with St Kieran's in his day. When Bobby was young, a man was heard say of him, "he has all the skills his father (Pa) hasn't, but none of those he has". A slightly cryptic nod to Pa's unique attributes as a stopper in his heyday.

Some see James Maher as having the potential to be a really good player for Kilkenny over the coming years and his attitude is believed to be good, an essential trait in that part of the world where they admire modesty as much as what a player does inside the white lines.

If he has the humility and work ethic he would also appear to have the temperament. The manner in which he took on Brendan Maher, an experienced and established member of the Tipp team, and showed zero deference, will have endeared him to Kilkenny supporters. Maher has plenty of hurling but it is only part of the package required to make the grade. Since Cody took over, only Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney, Noel Hickey, Larkin and Paul Murphy were promoted without serving time on the bench.

Galway, then, are a little wiser and forewarned as they bid to succeed where Tipp failed. But perhaps not all the wiser about themselves. The win over Cork in the first round, with a score of 1-27, gave the new management regime the positive start they needed to bolster morale after the disarray that preceded their appointment. But Cork isn't quite Cork anymore. And the surrender Galway showed in Parnell Park, even allowing for the loss of Joe Canning, raises fresh doubts about their readiness to dislodge Kilkenny. They beat Kilkenny last year, at home, but winning in Nowlan Park is a difficult mission and they haven't managed it since 2010 on a day when Ger Farragher was top scorer, a result that meant a third successive league defeat for Kilkenny.

The manager then was John McIntyre. "To beat Kilkenny is a turning point psychologically. And to do it in the manner we did was a second turning point," he said. "The lads showed real backbone and character this time."

They had to dig it out after Kilkenny looked to have winning momentum in the second half; from there Galway went on to win the National League. None of that backbone was in evidence in Parnell Park two weeks ago and long-term injury to Greg Lally adds to their problems, with Dublin opening up gaps with alarming ease by running at them directly. They can expect more of the same today. It will be interesting to see how they cope.

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