Sport Hurling

Sunday 17 December 2017

Dubs won't be bullied but return of strong men brings muscle to Kilkenny's method

Brian Cody's hand is stronger now than it was in the league final, says Jamesie O'Connor, but don't be surprised if Dublin make a battle of it

Jamesie O'Connor

In his autobiography I Crossed The Line Wexford's Liam Dunne recalled an incident in the dying moments of the 2002 Leinster final. With Kilkenny two points up and about to win yet another provincial title, Dunne looked at his immediate opponent John Hoyne and asked, "have ye not got enough Leinster medals?" Hoyne's response was to tip Dunne with his hurley in the chest and reply "they're not the medals we want".

Last winter, picking up his eighth consecutive All Star, an award most players would give their right arm to attain just one of, Tommy Walsh's body language wasn't that of somebody exactly enamoured to be on the podium. Surrounded by smiling Tipperary rather than Kilkenny players, there to collect the top individual awards as well as the lion's share of the attention and spotlight, Tommy didn't look a particularly happy camper. In fact, he had the appearance of someone who would prefer to have been just about anywhere else.

It reminded me too of the look of complete devastation on the faces of the Kilkenny players in the immediate aftermath of last year's All-Ireland defeat. Despite all they have won, the pain etched on their faces was genuine. That loss hurt and if Tommy's demeanour was anything to go by, it was still hurting weeks and months later.

As a result, the idea of succumbing to Dublin for a third time this year, and especially in a match of this importance, isn't something that will sit well in Kilkenny, and especially with this team.

Losing in the Walsh Cup in the depths of February is one thing. A 12-point hiding in the league final in early May is another. But defeat in Croke Park in the Leinster final in July? To Dublin, a county that hasn't tasted provincial success in the last 50 years and a side they walloped by 19 points in the Leinster semi-final last year. For the stripey men, that's a prospect that doesn't bear thinking about. Remember, Kilkenny have won 12 of the last 13 Leinster titles, and it required a last-second Wexford goal in 2004 to put the only blemish on that record. Having contested 11 of the last 13 All-Ireland finals in the hunt for the only medal that counts in their eyes, going through the back door, with all the pitfalls it entails, isn't going to be on the Kilkenny agenda.

However, if nothing else, Dublin have earned Kilkenny's respect this season. Two years ago, it was a significant feat for the Dubs just to overcome Wexford and make the Leinster final. On that occasion, coming up against a Kilkenny team at the height of its powers, containment was the order of the day. By playing a seventh defender, a tactic they probably had to employ given the form Kilkenny were in, winning was never a realistic target, and it was about remaining competitive and keeping the margin of defeat to a minimum.

Last year, when you expected them to have kicked on and progressed, they were simply outclassed. The 4-19 to 0-12 scoreline was indicative of the distance Dublin had to travel, and when you assess their chances this afternoon, a measure of how far they have managed to come. Whatever else, there won't be any such scoreline today.

Not only have Dublin progressed physically, but they are a different team in every sense of the word. The hard work has been done, both in the gym and on the field, and their size, physique and all-round conditioning will allow them to compete on a physical level with Kilkenny in a way few other teams can hope to. Allied to that is the genuine belief and confidence that the performances they have produced all season have given them. They are also hurling much better, playing with more cohesiveness, and consistently hitting the 20-point mark. Watching them physically dominate Galway in the middle third, as they had done to Kilkenny in the league, will have given Brian Cody plenty to think about. One thing is for sure, Dublin won't be bullied this afternoon.

More than anything else, Kilkenny's success over the last decade has been based on aerial supremacy. At either end of the field, the Cats have ruled the skies, dominating their own as well as the opposition's puck-out, monopolising possession in the process.

However, Tipperary found a way to break that stranglehold in each of the last two finals. Although a completely different type of team, Dublin are as good in the air as anyone else around, Kilkenny included, and they have consistently come out on top in the possession stakes in all the big games they have played this year. To win today, that has to happen, because with the quality they have in attack, Kilkenny have the ability to do more with significantly less of the ball.

Without captain Stephen Hiney and full-back Tomás Brady, at least Dublin have centre-back Joey Boland available again, although how match-fit he is remains to be seen. As expected, Peter Kelly will wear the number three jersey, but it's a tough position to play and, given his inexperience in the nuances of the role, an area Kilkenny are surely likely to target. Kelly's pace and athleticism mean he is excellent coming forward, and he showed how quickly he can recover on the couple of occasions Galway got in behind him in Tullamore. However, with Henry Shefflin selected at full-forward, and Eoin Larkin and Richie Power other possible options for Brian Cody to employ, serious questions are likely to be asked of his defensive capabilities.

It only took Kilkenny 42 seconds last year to put the ball in the Dublin net, which set the tone for the day. Keeping the green flags to a minimum this afternoon, and especially in the opening quarter, is another prerequisite for success, so Kelly will need all the help he can get from his defensive colleagues.

At the other end of the field, Dublin could also do with Ryan O'Dwyer's combative qualities and aggression beside Conal Keaney and Conor McCormack in the half-forward line. It's an area Dublin are unrecognisable in from a year ago, and much of their success to date this year has been down to this trio, and their work-rate. O'Dwyer's loss will be felt, as will David Treacy's unavailability, but at least they have had a fortnight to come to terms with it.

In the inside line, Paul Ryan has had a great season to date, but both himself and Dotsy O'Callaghan need to step up again today. For Dublin to win, they need to convert whatever goal opportunities happen to arrive. The Kilkenny full-back line looked anything but secure in Wexford Park, but it's not often JJ Delaney and Jackie Tyrrell play poorly in consecutive games, and while there have been points aplenty, scoring goals is not this Dublin team's strongest suit.

In assessing Kilkenny, all the conventional wisdom points to the balance of power since the league final having swung back in their favour. While John Tennyson and Aidan Fogarty remain on the long-term injury list, all the other big names and key players who missed that game -- Shefflin (pictured), Richie Power, Michael Fennelly and Tommy Walsh -- are back in the side. The hurling ability that quartet brings is obvious, but it's the drive and leadership they demonstrate on the field that I think Kilkenny missed most in that rudderless league final display. In addition, all four are primary ball winners and when you consider the difficulties Colin Fennelly, Cha Fitzpatrick and Matthew Ruth had in winning possession, Kilkenny's hand is considerably stronger than it was on May 1 with their inclusion. Larkin too, dismissed after 25 minutes on that occasion, is another factor Dublin will have to deal with; and with Shefflin's return, the free-taking is unlikely to malfunction as it did nine weeks ago either.

Of the returning players, Fennelly in particular has become increasingly important to the way Kilkenny play. His athleticism and ability to break tackles and drive forward provides them with the type of dynamism in the middle of the field that was conspicuously absent earlier in the season. Were Kilkenny to play as selected, and so partner Michael Rice with Fennelly at midfield, which I think is their optimum pairing, it's hard to see Dublin enjoying any kind of dominance in this sector. However, given how well the Dublin half-back line has been playing, and after hitting four points from play from wing-forward last time out against Wexford, Rice is more likely to be deployed in the half-forward line with TJ Reid at midfield.

Whatever way they line out, the reality is that Kilkenny just look that bit more potent in attack. The 1-26 they hit against an albeit disappointing Wexford side was an indication they have stepped things up to be ready for today. With the quality and experience they have coming back, they have a considerably more formidable looking side on the field today than at any stage this season. Conversely, Dublin can ill afford to be without the calibre of players they are missing. That leads to the inevitable conclusion, that while the gap is closing, and Dublin will make a real battle of it, it won't be bridged this afternoon. Kilkenny to win.

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