Defiant Dubs won't force Cats off direct route to glory
Forget the league, Cody's men are only now revving up, writes Jamesie O'Connor
With respective odds of 12, 16 and 100 to 1 on, Paddy Power obviously don't expect Galway, Kilkenny or Cork to experience any undue difficulties in this afternoon's hurling action. The defending champions are first into the fray, and whatever weaknesses, imaginary or otherwise, the three league defeats in March and April might have engendered are laid to rest by a starting 15 that, even with five changes from last year's All-Ireland starting side, looks as formidable as ever.
There has been a degree of speculation about Kilkenny's possible vulnerability this season given how close Tipp came last year to toppling them and the aforementioned defeats in the league. But those losses all came against opponents whose need to win far exceeded Kilkenny's. Additionally, with the bigger prizes to be played for from now to September, Kilkenny may be as well off having conserved their energies for later in the year.
By all accounts, they've only really cranked things up in recent weeks and you'd have to believe that the training has been centred on having them primed for Galway in a fortnight's time. It's not that Dublin won't have their full attention today. Cody wouldn't have it any other way, but the reality is that Kilkenny will see this as the smallest of the four hurdles they have to jump to win the All-Ireland via the direct route.
For those in black and amber, possession is truly nine-10ths of the law. With John Tennyson and Cha Fitzpatrick injured; stalwarts such as Derek Lyng, Eoin Larkin, Michael Kavanagh, Aidan Fogarty, and James Ryall all on the bench; not to mention new blood in John Mulhall, and Paddy Hogan; all who play today will be mindful of the consequences of a below-par performance. As the old adage goes, form is temporary, class is permanent. But regardless of how much class you have, form determines the number of the jersey you get handed in this set-up.
That formula has served Kilkenny well over the last decade, and goes a long way towards explaining why we've rarely seen Kilkenny outfought or outworked over 70 minutes in Croke Park. With Noel Hickey back to man the edge of the square, JJ Delaney is released to his best position on the wing, leaving Anthony Daly with the considerable headache of how he's going to get the ball past this Kilkenny half-back line.
Michael Rice, who many felt would lead the attack at centre-forward, is back where he excelled last year at midfield and TJ Reid gets his first championship start at full-forward. As ever the flexibility Kilkenny have up front means any of the starting sextet could appear in any of the six positions. Martin Comerford did the damage with the two goals that separated the sides last year. But with any one of them capable of inflicting similar losses, containing all six plus the reinforcements that will inevitably arrive off the bench is nigh on impossible, playing an orthodox formation.
Therein lies the crux for Daly. A year ago, Dublin had no choice but to set out to contain Kilkenny and give themselves a chance to be in the game with 20 minutes to go. By playing John McCaffrey as an extra defender they achieved that and took a lot of positives out of the game. Because there's no chance Daly will settle for a moral victory this time around, Dublin are going to have to find a strategy to shut Kilkenny down without strangling their own chances. In that regard, the manager has a good track record and if the Dublin players are bullish about their chances, it stems directly from the man in charge.
Obviously the loss of David Treacy is a blow, and questions over the form and fitness of Dotsy O'Callaghan is another legitimate concern. Tomas Brady's hamstring injury, Ronan Fallon's decision to walk away and the feeling that the best 15 players aren't necessarily available are other negatives. But these little things often do more to unify a camp than when things appear to be running smoothly. Everything in Dublin's preparations all year will have been geared towards being ready for today. This is their All-Ireland final and Daly will surely wring a performance out of his team.
Ultimately the result depends as much on Kilkenny as anything else. The overriding impression last year was they were playing within themselves and you'd have to question whether Dublin could withstand the full extent of their ferocity, were they to hit top gear. Kilkenny will win but Dublin won't back down and the margin may be smaller than a year ago.
Before the near disaster that was the Antrim game, I would have been more favourable about Offaly's hopes of an upset in the second semi-final. That performance and the reports about the game with Cork last weekend, however, couldn't inspire any confidence in their chances. Yet, their record against Galway is good and with plenty of good ball players, being back in Croke Park will bring the best out of them.
Galway haven't trained collectively that much since the Wexford match which may leave them a little vulnerable. Question marks remain about the defence, particularly the full-back line. While Ollie Canning's cool-headedness and ability to read the game remain as imperious as ever, he may have lost a half yard of pace and Shane Dooley will provide as stern a test as he'll face all summer. Shane Kavanagh's confidence can't have been helped by the big tally he shipped to Joe Canning in a club match but that's forgiveable and he's had a solid year to date.
Galway have progressed from last year but they're still not the finished article. The bottom line is that they should be winning this game by at least five or six points. With John McIntyre knowing the Offaly players inside out and what they're capable of, his side should be up for it. If they are, we can look ahead to the most attractive Leinster final this decade.
You wouldn't have required a crystal ball last October to foresee where the crisis enveloping the Limerick senior team had the potential to go. Once a resolution couldn't be found, relegation to Division 2 was a foregone conclusion and, as Clare will testify, this isn't where Limerick hurling wants or needs to be.
Regardless of whether Justin McCarthy stays or goes, Limerick need their best players on the field. Of course, those donning the green jersey this afternoon have worked as hard as any inter-county side all year, and no doubt will give their all for the cause. The unfortunate reality however is that you don't become an inter-county hurler overnight and many of them simply aren't good enough to play at this level.
Cork, with one eye on Waterford, will look to get as much out of this game as they can. The best Limerick can hope for is damage limitation, but if Cork play with the same intensity and pace as they did against Tipperary, then they could accumulate a big total.