Sport Hurling

Friday 15 December 2017

Rachel Wyse: Cats' pomp is long gone and warning lights are flashing

Dublin's Conal Keaney in action against JJ Delaney of Kilkenny in last week's drawn game at Portlaoise
Dublin's Conal Keaney in action against JJ Delaney of Kilkenny in last week's drawn game at Portlaoise

Rachel Wyse

Over 9,000 journeyed to Portlaoise last Sunday, few in hope, many in expectation. And over 70 minutes everything changed: hope turned to belief and expectations turned to desperation.

This evening Kilkenny people will gladly travel last Sunday's path. For Dublin supporters, emotions are surely mixed: their team's performance brought them to the brink of a famous victory only to be denied with the last puck, and frustratingly now they must try to do it all again.

No one foresaw such a result in O'Moore Park and to witness men in black and amber struggling against Dublin left many people wondering. Has the core of Kilkenny's team reached the journey's end? Are there simply too many miles in the legs?

Dublin have suffered some harsh lessons in recent years but one wonders is the message finally getting through. Could they be contenders for championship silverware?

Anthony Daly's men are admirably resilient. After a disastrous 2012 they regrouped to win promotion back to the top tier and were within seconds of a Leinster final appearance before TJ Reid's intervention. They turned up and gave a performance last weekend, something this Dublin team has been guilty of failing to do on big days against Kilkenny and indeed lesser opposition in recent times.

The prospect of facing Kilkenny in Portlaoise hardly warmed Dublin hearts after their display at the same venue last year. But they faced their demons and while everything wasn't perfect, it represented a step in the right direction.

FORGIVING

Daly's tinkering with team selection didn't work in Wexford Park, a realisation fortunately made against forgiving opposition, but he got his personnel and approach right in Portlaoise. Theirs was a performance more about hurling and less about physicality. It served Dublin well.

With the exception of Walter Walsh, Kilkenny's forwards were dominated by the Dublin backs. They made Kilkenny look ordinary.

More of the same is needed if Dublin are to bridge a 71-year gap and beat Kilkenny in the championship. Last Sunday must now be deemed irrelevant – reflecting on missed opportunities won't help their cause and the feats of the drawn game will be quickly overlooked should they fail give another worthy performance.

For all their failings, Dublin's players are honest and there is no reason to believe they won't perform well again.

Confidence should be higher among Dublin players, belief reinforced. There are a lot of uncertainties surrounding the replay but I think Dublin's level of performance is not among them. We know what to expect from the Boys in Blue.

The question is, will such efforts be good enough? It depends on what Kilkenny team turns up, but I think a Dublin win is unlikely.

So what of Kilkenny? Are we witnessing the end of the greatest team many of us will ever see? Injuries are proving a real nuisance and while Kilkenny have missed the influence of key men, more tellingly their absence has revealed the lack of strength in depth at Brian Cody's disposal. That fabled conveyor belt of talent hasn't stopped, but the production line is definitely in go-slow mode.

Minor teams of recent years resembled a Kilkenny outfit only in name, and while expectations are high for this year's U-21 team, their performance in O'Connor Park last Wednesday didn't set too many pulses racing.

Jackie Tyrrell returns to the full-back line today and he, along with six or seven other core players, makes this Kilkenny team tick. When this group fails to perform, Kilkenny struggle. Too many were way off the pace last Sunday.

Outside of this group, Kilkenny have good hurlers and a worthy supporting cast but they follow where Tyrrell and Co lead. Against Dublin, with too many of Kilkenny's big players struggling, the limitations of those around them were exposed.

The question remains: were Kilkenny's go-to players struggling because of poor attitude or did they simply fail to get to grips with Dublin? If it's the latter, then the days Kilkenny people dare not speak of are here, an end to their dominance is nigh.

To my eye, much of Kilkenny's problems last week were of their own making, for their attitude simply wasn't right. Perhaps, in some way, these men are a victim of their own success. Dublin haven't really troubled them in recent meetings and after the Dubs' less than glorious display against a limited Wexford team in the opening round, subconsciously did Kilkenny believe victory was inevitable?

Cody will deny all such charges but his players are human beings and complacency is difficult to avoid. It is a long road they have travelled, minds and bodies are weary and perhaps lesser lights of the hurling world fail to concentrate the mind.

If so, this tells a tale, not alone of their unparalleled success and dominance in recent times but also the lack of competition from emerging faces in Kilkenny pressurising established team members for a starting jersey. Until all the injuries clear, Cody is shuffling the same 16/17 cards and the way they played last week, some of his player will know huge improvement is needed.

Cody has been here before. In 2001, when Galway beat Kilkenny in an All-Ireland semi-final, the difference was clear: Cody then had emerging talent at his disposal, well capable of meeting his demands.

Kilkenny's very heavy reliance on the same proven faces is testament to how times have changed. Today there are no excuses, they are forewarned and lackadaisical attitudes will leave them facing Tipperary in the qualifiers.

Expect Kilkenny to be a different animal this evening. If they struggle to beat Dublin, even after last week's scare, it will tell us much about their capacity for another summer's journey to Croke Park in September.

Kilkenny in their pomp would dispose of today's opponents with ease but those days are long gone. Their graph is headed south and the day will come when the hearts and minds are willing but the legs just fail.

FOCUSED

The warning lights flashed on a few occasions last year, only for them to come good when the stakes could get no higher. September is a long way off but I think events last week will have sufficiently focused the minds that matter most in Kilkenny's camp.

The reality is this Dublin team struggled to overcome a moderate Wexford outfit, and even with Kilkenny being so poor last week Dublin failed to get over the winning line.

I suspect Dublin's chance has passed and the return journey to the capital for their supporters will be plighted with 'what if' scenarios.

Great champions produce when it matters most. Events at 7.0 in Portlaoise this evening matter. Expect Kilkenny to deliver.

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