WHAT a difference a year makes. Kilkenny went into the 2010 championship as odds-on favourites to scale a peak never previously reached.
They were taking on the five-in-a-row slopes with an apparent air of invincibility although, in fairness, that was other people's assessment, not theirs.
A year on, they begin their championship campaign as second favourites behind Tipperary and with the memory of an inexplicable power failure against Dublin in the league final only six weeks old. Then again, knowing Kilkenny, they have probably managed to delete it.
There's a view out there that this particular Kilkenny squad is now living on borrowed time and that once decline sets in, it's impossible to arrest.
It's not a view I share in Kilkenny's case. There are no absolutes in sport, so just as Kilkenny weren't the certainties the five-in-a-row bandwagon demanded last year (Tipperary had every chance to beat them in the 2009 final), they are not the fading force that some seem to think this term.
Look at the team they have selected for this evening. Henry Shefflin (pictured below )and plenty of other big guns are back and while they will be without Tommy Walsh, they have a player of the calibre of Paddy Hogan to step in, which shows the depth of their squad.
The game against Wexford provides Kilkenny with the ideal launch pad in that it's a big, but manageable, test. It's in Wexford Park against a team that improved considerably towards the latter end of the league and while Wexford's U-21 win over Kilkenny on Tuesday has no direct bearing, it's always encouraging for the purple-and-gold when they beat the old enemy at any grade.
Now, the Wexford seniors have a chance to deliver their biggest punch since flooring Kilkenny in the 2004 Leinster semi-final and with a huge following to drive them on, it should trigger a huge wave of determination.
Nonetheless, I expect Kilkenny to win and to also put down a marker for the rest of the season. That doesn't mean that they have to win by a big margin. No, this is all about performance and a return to the fundamentals of the Kilkenny game.
Much has been made about their big defeat against Dublin in the league final and while the stats certainly didn't make impressive reading (1-7 in 70 minutes, 0-6 of which came from frees) there was a time midway through the second half that you felt that if they scored a goal everything could change. Also, they were a man down for 45 minutes, which was a huge burden to carry against a Dublin team oozing energy and power.
It was anything but a typical Kilkenny performance, but I have no doubt it was a once-off. Despite all they have achieved, the Kilkenny players know that teams are always judged by their last performance, or certainly their last championship.
If anyone is well suited to recovering from setbacks, it's Kilkenny. They have the most experienced team and manager in the game, so Wexford -- and indeed others too -- know what to expect.
Whereas Kilkenny's pack is jammed with proven performers, Wexford do not have the same range of game-breakers, men who can inject something special into the mix. Indeed, with the exception of lads like Keith Rossiter, Darren Stamp, Stephen Banville, Ciaran Kenny and Rory Jacob, they wouldn't be that well known outside Wexford.
Still, this game provides the 15 starters -- and probably five subs -- with a glorious opportunity to make a really significant statement about how the restoration of Wexford hurling is progressing. I expect them to rise to the occasion (if they don't respond to playing Kilkenny in a packed Wexford Park, there's little hope for them in the long term) and produce a really good performance.
If they do, they can keep the game alive for a long time, but, at some stage, Kilkenny will inject a change of pace and deliver enough scores to take them home without having to look over their shoulders in the closing minutes.
deise to escape treaty ambush
IT might seem odd to suggest that Waterford have more to lose than Limerick in tomorrow's Munster semi-final, but it's true.
Waterford are the defending Munster champions and a consistent Division 1 side; they bring more big-time experience to the challenge than Limerick, who are restabilising after the self-detonated explosion which wrecked their 2010 season.
They are doing it well too. They dominated Division 2, including beating Clare twice, so they are very much on the right track. However, Waterford appear to be on a faster track.
Not that Limerick will see it that way. They would always fancy themselves against Waterford and with Donal O'Grady bringing his vast knowledge to the scene, progress will come quickly. I saw Limerick in a challenge game against Galway recently and was impressed by their movement.
Davy Fitz is doing a fine job with Waterford, but he will be very wary of this new challenge. Limerick are 5/2 outsiders and, other than inside the camp itself, the view is that they will be beaten. That's ideal terrain for an ambush.
Whether it will be enough to blow Waterford off course remains to be seen. I don't think so, but Limerick will do well enough to send them into the qualifiers with positive minds.
One final point about tomorrow's game. The top ticket price is €30, which in my view is too much. It should be dropped to €20, with everything else scaled below that. After all, pockets are a lot less full than they used to be.
Galway need to
find extra gear
SO, what are we to make of Galway's struggle to shake off Westmeath last Saturday?
It's wasn't exactly the sort of performance they would have liked, but, in the end, it provided enough nourishment to take them to the next food station.
There will be concern among Galway fans that the starting 15 still doesn't appear to have been settled on, but, ready or not, it's the fast lane from here on.
History shows that what are often regarded as warm-up games tend to be trickier than anticipated, but, once safely negotiated, have no bearing next time out. I expect that to be the case with Galway. It had better be when they play Dublin.