Kilkenny losing their aura of invincibility
WATERFORD should travel to Nowlan Park this afternoon and have a serious crack at Kilkenny – because slowly but surely, the All-Ireland champions are losing the aura of invincibility that had opposition teams beaten before they even took to the field.
Kilkenny don't hold the same fear for teams like Galway, Tipperary, Cork and even Waterford any more. In their opening two league fixtures, Kilkenny have shipped 5-28 and that would worry me, if I was their manager Brian Cody.
The other end of the field wouldn't concern me as much, but over the last five or six years, when have we seen Kilkenny so brittle at the back?
Cody won't panic, that's for sure, and Kilkenny are going for three-in-a-row this year, but keeping his players fresh is a concern. Come championship time, four of his defenders will be 30 or over – Jackie Tyrrell, JJ Delaney, Brian Hogan and Tommy Walsh. And we saw in last year's championship that Kilkenny can be opened up – and especially by Galway. In previous years, you wouldn't get through that brick wall.
I'd also question Kilkenny's strength in depth.
Their supporters might believe that there's an abundance of talent coming through, but I'm not so sure. For years, Kilkenny players knew that if they weren't playing well or sticking to the plan, or if they made a mistake, they were likely to be whipped off. Not any more.
Look at last year's drawn All-Ireland final, when things weren't going too well for Kilkenny. And yet Cody waited until the 63rd minute to bring in Matthew Ruth, the only substitute he used on the day. Compare that to the 2008 final when we played them.
Their subs bench that day was packed with quality – John Dalton, James Ryall, John Tennyson, Michael Fennelly, Michael Rice, Richie Hogan, TJ Reid. If Kilkenny were in trouble, Cody wouldn't have been afraid to make switches because he had players to bring in. He doesn't have that luxury any more.
There's no Eddie Brennan now, either, or Martin Comerford, or Cha Fitzpatrick. Another big factor in Kilkenny's season is how Reid, Rice and Henry Shefflin are when they return from injury. When Kilkenny had a greater depth in their squad, they could afford to be without Shefflin – but not now. They still depend so much on him.
Before we played them in 2008, we didn't care about Kilkenny. They were just another team to us. But they obliterated us and they continued to do that to other top teams.
Kilkenny stripped opponents of the belief that they could beat them. Cody used the league to lay down strong markers by heaping pain on perceived threats, to put them in their place, like you would a scolded child.
Cody's troops were relentless and weren't slow about handing out massacres, if the urge took them. They did it to Cork at Nowlan Park, they did it to Tipp, to Galway. They placed a mental block in the opposition's mind ahead of the championship.
But I don't see that with them any more and the general landscape is beginning to level off a small bit. Teams don't fear Kilkenny now. Galway believe they can beat them and although they were destroyed in last year's All-Ireland semi-final, Tipp, being Tipp, will always believe they can beat Kilkenny. Cork are the same and even the likes of Clare won't fear Kilkenny as much as other years.
Last year's Leinster final and the two All-Ireland finals will have given the chasing pack a considerable amount of hope that this monster can be slayed. Kilkenny have huge mileage on the clock and they need Shefflin fit and firing again. What he brought to the table last September was incredible.
Getting back to today, I'd urge Waterford to have a right cut off it. They have three points on the board already and anything they pick up in Kilkenny would be a bonus.
I don't think anybody would have thought that Waterford would start so well, so they can go out there today and hurl with abandon and see where that takes them.
Another win from their remaining three games will secure Division 1A status for another year and who knows, five points might get you through to a semi-final with teams picking points off each other.