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Beware the Cats

THE first thing Kilkenny did in 2002 was to win the Allianz League title. They had lost their All-Ireland title in 2001, having been beaten by Galway in the semi-final before watching Tipperary win the final.

The first thing Kilkenny did in 2006 was to win the league title. They had lost to Galway in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final and then looked on enviously as Cork won the final.

The first thing Kilkenny did in 2011 was to win the league title. They had lost the 2010 All-Ireland final to Tipperary and wanted a quick fix of title power as early as possible in the new season.

Only Dublin can change that last paragraph, a challenge they will take on with levels of optimism not experienced across the city and county for a very long time. They will also have the support of 30 other counties, not as an anti-Kilkenny sentiment, but as a pro-underdog gesture.

As neither the All-Ireland nor League titles have gone Liffeyside since the late 1930s, Kilkenny will understand why there's so much goodwill towards Dublin. In return, though, Dublin and the rest of the hurling world should understand that if the opportunity presents itself, Kilkenny will win by as big a margin as possible.

Nothing personal, just the serious business of getting back on track as quickly as possible. It could be argued that of all the teams in the first division, Kilkenny had the least need to win this year's League.

Offaly and Wexford were never going to be in contention for a place in the final, but five others, including All-Ireland champions Tipperary, had more reasons than Kilkenny to see a good spring campaign as a requirement.


Tipperary would have benefited from the extra game, not least in terms of giving new manager Declan Ryan a chance to assess at close quarters how his squad -- as distinct from his first team -- coped with the new pressures that arise after a team wins the All-Ireland title.

Galway needed it to prevent them going into the championship with more questions than answers on their books; Cork could have done with a good run to pump up confidence levels; Waterford have a lot of young players who would have gained from a league final test, while Dublin's long wait for a place in a national final underpinned their desire.

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And Kilkenny? With an injury epidemic hitting the county, nobody would have read anything significant into it if they finished outside the top two, but, being Kilkenny, they topped the group anyway.

But then, Brian Cody has always operated on the principle that every competition is there to be won, not merely to prepare for the next one. The trend of managers trying to explain away League failure as part of some grand plan designed to come to fruition later in the season is as boring now as it was 10 years ago.

The difference is that by winning so many Leagues and All-Irelands in that period, Kilkenny have shown it be pure nonsense. In fairness, the league-bounce factor has rubbed off on football too, with five of the last eight champions later winning the All-Ireland, a return which Cork are hoping to extend to six of nine next September.

Naturally, there was always going to be a fascination about how Kilkenny would react to last year's All-Ireland final defeat. Their winning run had to end sometime, but there's no doubt that when champions are beaten, the individual components of the unit which made them so powerful in the first place don't seem quite as intimidating anymore.

It's as much psychological as anything else. Kilkenny's 21 straight championship wins between June 2006 and August 2010 created an aura that was hugely beneficial to them and rather scary for the opposition.

Tipperary became the first to overcome that, en route to winning last year's All-Ireland final. They also did all the other contenders a major service as it meant that Kilkenny would be seen in a new, less dazzling light this year.

If Dublin were to inflict a second final defeat (a third if the Walsh Cup is included) in the space of eight months, it might not seriously trouble Kilkenny's psychological wellbeing, but it would certainly make all their rivals think more positively about themselves.

Kilkenny will be conscious of that because however much self-confidence a squad possesses, they don't want to see new threats galloping over the horizon.

That's where Cody's influence comes in. Despite Kilkenny's remarkable string of successes over the last decade, he has always insisted that at the start of any given year, there were several contenders who could win the major titles. He has been including Dublin among them for quite some time and, now that they have finally made it to a final, he can easily convey to his players the sense that dangerous new challengers have arrived on the scene.

He will stress the importance of keeping them down. Bad enough to have Galway come across the Shannon and raise competitiveness in Leinster, but now Dublin are threatening to be a major force too. What next? A Dublin-Galway Leinster final? Okay, so it won't be this year as they are on the same side of the draw, but it could happen quite soon.

That is, of course, unless Kilkenny maintain their relentless grip on power in the province and, quite possibly, re-establish it outside too.

The first step in that process took place over the last few months and it gathers pace tomorrow as Kilkenny attempt to complete the first phase of their post All-Ireland rehabilitation by doing what they know best -- winning the League.

Their response to championship setbacks over the last decade has been swift and effective, with the League featuring prominently. If they manage that again -- especially with a weakened squad -- it will flash out a very clear signal that the empire is preparing to strike back.

Not that anybody would doubt it, but a sixth League title in 10 years would confirm it in ominous terms for those who felt that last year's All-Ireland final defeat had finally broken the spell.

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