Dublin well placed to remain on their Leinster throne
Cody faces massive task to prove doubters wrong and get Cats back on Leinster perch
For close to a decade, Brian Cody recoiled from the national perception that Leinster hurling had become a one-horse town. His argument invariably came to be intercepted by recitations of Kilkenny's winning margins in assorted finals (eight points in 2006, 15 in 2007, 19 in 2008, nine in 2011).
Today, however, no such protest is required. Kilkenny last won the Bob O'Keeffe Cup in 2011 and face a heavily mined path again this year if they are to reclaim the provincial trophy.
A third year of deprivation would constitute virtual famine status in their eyes, something never previously experienced under Cody.
So this is the first time under his stewardship that Kilkenny have gone successive years without a Leinster crown, albeit he inherited the post in late '98 after they'd won just one in their first previous five seasons.
Relinquishing the title to Galway in 2012 (despite the withering scale of that final defeat) clearly didn't deposit any long-term scarring, given they subsequently beat Anthony Cunningham's men in that year's replayed All-Ireland final.
Last year, Dublin edged past them after two grimly intense semi-final battles, then obliterated the defending champions in the most lop-sided Leinster final since, well, that 19-point trimming of Wexford in '08 by you know who.
That was Dublin's first senior provincial crown since 1961 and this year's draw certainly seems to have pitched them on the more accommodating side of business, with Wexford their likely semi-final opponents on June 14, albeit it could conceivably be Laois.
In this case, presumption might prove a dangerous thing.
Still, if it is Wexford, Anthony Daly would no doubt be quick to emphasise that for all the dismissiveness of Model County hurling so recently in vogue, Dublin needed a replay to overcome Liam Dunne's men en route to last year's title and Clare were dragged through extra-time by the same opposition during their journey to the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
Wexford are probably correctly placed as 22/1 outsiders for a first Leinster crown since '04, but there is evidence that – in physical terms at least – they have closed the gap on hurling's elite.
Still, Dublin's championship performances last year were marked by composure and immense tactical discipline and there will still be a niggle in city minds telling them that, had a rampant Ryan O'Dwyer not been harshly red-carded in their All-Ireland semi-final against Cork, the remarkable spectacle of Dublin contesting a hurling final might actually have materialised.
They've since overcome a shocking opening to the league (losing by 13 points to Galway) to record victories over Clare and Kilkenny, but then squander an open invitation into the quarter-finals when Niall McMorrow eschewed a late point opportunity against Tipperary when that score was all they needed to make the final eight.
That said, there was something deeply impressive about how they responded to that wobble, revisiting Walsh Park – the scene of an earlier defeat in Division 1A – and easily accounting for Waterford in a relegation play-off.
The return after a year's sabbatical of Alan McCrabbe has broadened their attacking options and All Star wing-forward Danny Sutcliffe looks – if anything – to be improving with every season. Factor in the ball-winning ability of Conal Keaney and O'Dwyer with the poaching potential of 'Dotsy' O'Callaghan and Paul Ryan and it's clear these champions will not be easily unseated.
Kilkenny open their campaign in Nowlan Park against an Offaly team that was last month just about spared the indignity of relegation to the wastelands of Division 2 hurling.
Brian Whelahan looks to have taken on a pretty thankless challenge with the midlanders, whose 1B play-off defeat against Antrim in Ballycastle came just a week after they'd slammed 5-27 past the same opposition.
Whelahan was loath afterwards to even call Offaly's display "a performance" saying simply that his team was in "a quagmire". They were largely rescued from that predicament subsequently by a play-off against 2A winners Kerry, who were left wondering why the rules that applied in other divisions (promotion when finishing top) were so curiously decommissioned for theirs.
As it happened, Kerry would score the first seven points of that play-off before losing the remainder 3-19 to 0-7 on a Thurles evening that, maybe, served to crystallise why officialdom chose to offer Offaly that parachute.
That said, Whelahan's men have done little to suggest that Kilkenny will have anything but a rudimentary passage to the Leinster semi-finals where, barring some monumental upset, Galway will be their opponents.
A suspicion lurks with Cunningham's men that the momentum of 2012 has never quite been recaptured and supporters had to be exasperated last year at seeing them remain so faithful to the county's modern tradition of following an All-Ireland final year with one of inexplicable lethargy.
They followed with an uneventful league campaign, though Cunningham looks to have unearthed a decent central defensive spine in the Burkes, Ronan and Daithi. Conor Cooney also had an outstanding campaign on the '40' and, if Galway can finally settle on a game plan to maximise Joe Canning's involvement, they are capable of beating any opposition.
Cody re-seeded Kilkenny relentlessly through the league, his apparent priority to – at the very least – put pressure on some of the team's defensive stalwarts. Men like Brian Kennedy, Padraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley certainly put their hands up for long-term inclusion, but they are looking to unseat legends.
Joey Holden, Mark Kelly and John Power have all had their moments too, but the challenge for Cody is in reading just how much of last year's disappointment was down to injuries and how much could be attributed to simple ageing.
On that latter issue, Henry Shefflin has been moving particularly well at 35, so no easy conclusions to be drawn there.
The hunch here is that we will see a Dublin-Kilkenny final on July 6 and, contrary to the bookies' expectations, our suspicion is that the Dubs might just retain their crown.
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