'We want to be one of three teams to come out of Leinster' - Brian Cody taking Kilkenny rebuild one step at a time
Injury crisis takes experience from key defensive positions to cast a cloud over provincial campaign
When Kilkenny lost an All-Ireland quarter-final to Cork in 2013, much significance was placed on the fact that, for the first time on Brian Cody's watch, they wouldn't be hurling into August.
A series of injuries that summer had helped to derail them. Any current audit of who will remain unavailable to them, for most or all of the Leinster Championship, will surely remind Cody of how it was six years ago.
Eoin Murphy, Conor Delaney, Cillian Buckley and James Maher have all been, effectively, ruled out of action for the time being. Add to that list the name of Joey Holden, who reportedly sustained a hamstring injury in recent days, and Kilkenny are in the clutch of a crisis, especially in defence, where the goalkeeping, full-back and centre-back roles are likely to be filled by relative rookies.
Cody has always cherished stability and familiarity in these positions, hence the small pool of names over the last 20 summer campaigns that responsibility has been thrust upon.
Full-back has largely been the preserve of Noel Hickey, JJ Delaney, Holden and Pádraig Walsh though Canice Brennan and Kieran Joyce have had cameos there, while the number of goalkeepers is just as low, James McGarry, PJ Ryan, David Herity and Murphy a distinguished quartet.
Centre-back has had more variables but the specialist nature of the role has prompted guarded delegation there too.
But on Saturday in Nowlan Park experience of these key positions will be modest for the occupants with Darren Brennan and Richie Reid vying for goalkeeper and Paddy Deegan and Huw Lawlor among the options for the anchor vacancies.
It has raised the spectre of the earliest championship exit yet in the Cody era. Not since 1996 have Kilkenny failed to prolong a campaign beyond June when future GAA president Nickey Brennan's team crashed out to Wexford in the pre-qualifier era.
It may be a stretch to suggest that Kilkenny are that vulnerable but it heightens the importance of Saturday, nonetheless. Anything other than a win will imperil their survival beyond a second month.
"We want to be one of three teams to come out of Leinster for starters, that's our first ambition," said Cody at last week's Leinster Championship launch. Their list of absentees may well frame further progress.
The weight of Dublin's challenge on the opening day in Parnell Park last year has reminded Kilkenny of the challenge they face and Cody knows that a rare Nowlan Park defeat would have them on the back foot straight away.
"Dublin are a top team," he said, reiterating a statement about them that he has been making for a decade-and-a-half now. "I'm saying that a long time. They are. A top team. Serious, serious panel.
"Look at their league. They beat Tipperary in the quarter-final in Thurles. That was a statement enough for anybody who hadn't realised at that stage how good they are. You say we ran Limerick close last year, Limerick beat Dublin by three points in the league semi-final. Dublin are up there with the very best teams. Of course we are playing them and you can say, 'Sure you would say that'. But I believe it. It's the truth, the truth."
If Cody has misgivings about a system that could throw up further injuries in the coming weeks to further stretch his resources, he sees little point in ventilating that now.
"It doesn't matter whether I like it or not. Obviously, it's hugely exciting as a spectacle for the people looking on but as I said it's challenging for players. We're talking about having injuries now but if you pick up an injury on a Sunday and you have a game on the following Sunday, a fairly innocuous injury can become a two-week one pretty easily. That's tricky."
Their tougher games, Galway at home and Wexford away, are at the back end of the Leinster round robin, the other side of a three-week break in Kilkenny during which they have decided to play a round of club championship fixtures. They go ahead with the manager's blessing who has criticised the absence of club hurling during May and June especially for with the new format in place.
It's 20 years since his first championship game against Westmeath but on the cusp of a 21st championship campaign he doesn't find the time pressures any greater than they were back then.
"You can make it out to be as time-consuming as you like. People do it differently. Or maybe it is presumed to be something that is difficult to be giving so much time to. It was possibly even at the start more challenging because you are putting things in place trying to get things organised."
What has changed though is the tactical element to hurling though he cautions that management and coaches can only influence so much.
"Everyone speculates on what's going to happen if a team wins an All-Ireland final and, 'What can we buy into now' but there is no gospel, it's still players who play the game, managers, coaches and everyone else, they send out the players to play but you have to tailor your team to suit the abilities that you have."