On-fire Patrick Horgan to test Huw Lawlor's credentials as Cats do battle with Cork
Kilkenny v Cork, 2pm, Croke Park, live RTÉ 2
In the opening Leinster Championship game against Dublin in Nowlan Park, the move of Huw Lawlor to full-back helped bring a stability to the Kilkenny defence missing in the first half.
Pádraig Walsh relocated to centre back in the same re-arrangement and Dublin's attack didn't have the same room to influence the game.
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Lawlor has, ever since, been filling a position for which Kilkenny have had numerous debates and chin strokes in recent years, usually over whether they could afford to have Walsh residing there when his value out the field was missed.
Lawlor, now 23 and a prominent Fitzgibbon Cup player for UCD, has adapted quickly to the position, having made his National League bow this season against Cork in the first round and his championship debut against Dublin.
Today he faces his severest test in Croke Park on Patrick Horgan, who is Cork's all-time championship top scorer and their most dangerous, experienced and prolific forward. Since Noel Hickey's and JJ Delaney's retirements, Kilkenny has craved a steady long-term solution for full-back.
Brian Cody is one of a list of celebrated former Kilkenny full-backs from a time when the position tended to be more settled and provided a longer security of tenure. Cody was there for the All-Ireland wins of 1982 and '83, and in his time as manager he found a diamond full-back in the aggressive figure of Hickey until time and injuries caught up with him.
Maurice Aylward, the experienced manager who led Ballyhale to All-Ireland success and is currently looking after Thomastown, agrees that Horgan will present Lawlor with his greatest challenge even if the early indications are positive.
"He's settling in well now," says Aylward. "Nicky English has terrific time for him because he was involved with him at UCD. In the Leinster final I thought he was very good, particularly in the second half.
"He has all the make-up of a full-back if you like to put it that way: he's tall, he's physical, he's good in the air and he's a fine hurler. So I definitely think he has tremendous potential to eventually make that position his own.
"Now he'll probably get a bit of competition from Conor Delaney from Castlecomer, he was doing well there and then he got injured."
Alyward recalls one "tremendous catch" that lifted the team against Dublin. "I will withhold (judgement) really until [this] evening because I think he is up against it. As you know, it's easier hurl a big man that you know is going up in the air with their hand. Conor McDonald would be that kind of a player, whereas Pat Horgan is a very wristy type of hurler, makes room and space and he has (Alan) Cadogan beside him as well."
Rumours of a number of team changes have been circulating since the loss to Wexford, creating uncertainty, with Kilkenny coming to Croke Park on the back of two defeats and a draw. "It's not good, when you think of it, to be going into an All-Ireland quarter-final and people to be talking of four or five changes," admits Aylward. "When any team is going well you could pick 13-14. I could nearly pick the Cork team for Sunday and the Tipperary team and I wouldn't be any more than one out. But with Kilkenny, and I am very much involved in hurling in Kilkenny, I couldn't sit down and pick the 15 players I think Brian will have out. I could be four or five positions out.
"I can't put my finger on what is going on with Kilkenny hurling, especially at underage and what is coming through. I mean we have probably the best college in Ireland, we've won four out of the last five All Ireland colleges with Kieran's. We have two or three other good colleges.
"We have four or five good periphery colleges in Wexford, Waterford and Tipp where 50 per cent of those would be nearly Kilkenny. And still we were blown out of the All-Ireland last year by Galway in the under-17 final, physically and mentally and hurling-wise.
"Limerick beat us in the under-21 there two years and look what they have brought on from that team, and we have brought on very little from our team. There's a huge amount of questions to be answered. We are very unsettled at the moment. Maybe that comes after a successful period."
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