Saturday 16 December 2017

Ruthless Cats issue warning to title hopefuls

But Dublin's under 21s offer hope for future, writes Jamesie O'Connor

If they were hoping for signs of weakness or evidence that Kilkenny's standards might be slipping, then there weren't too many crumbs of comfort for Denis Walsh, John McIntyre or Liam Sheedy in Croke Park last weekend.

After a league campaign that hinted the revolution could well be nigh, the empire duly struck back, delivering an emphatic and timely reminder to all and sundry as to where their intentions lie.

While it mightn't have been a vintage Kilkenny performance -- 10 first-half wides, some uncharacteristic mistakes and the fact Dublin had a couple of decent goal chances -- it still surpassed anything we've seen in the championship. Even with five changes from last year's All-Ireland final, they looked as formidable as ever, and the crushing nature of the drubbing handed out to the Dubs merely served to highlight it.

Tommy Walsh was head and shoulders above anyone else on the pitch. Michael Rice looks to have picked up from where he left off last year and you couldn't help but feel that some of the established old guard, such as JJ Delaney and Henry Shefflin, cruised through the game without ever having to really exert themselves. That said, the Dublin players weren't allowed a second on the ball and they just couldn't live with the physicality and intensity of Kilkenny's play.

Two things Brian Cody said after the game deserve comment. He was right when stating there isn't 19 points between the sides, but given how poorly Dublin performed, it was a fair reflection of the gulf between them on the day. However, his tongue is firmly in his cheek, when he trots out the mantra that on any given day, Dublin can beat Kilkenny. Quite simply they can't; but the same could be said of most other hurling counties so there's no dishonour in that.

For Anthony Daly and the Dublin players, the disappointment will have come in the poverty of the performance. With the exception of Gary McGuire in goal, they were dreadful. Tactically, they didn't seem to have any idea of what they were trying to do or how to go about breaking Kilkenny down. The mistakes under pressure and poor decision making on the ball that unravelled them last year reoccurred at inopportune moments. The opening passage of play encapsulated it, and is the difference between Dublin and the top tier teams. With a good chance of a point, a Dotsy O'Callaghan shot dropped harmlessly short into PJ Ryan, and seconds later a TJ Reid pass had released Eddie Brennan who buried the ball in the back of the net. Psychologically, that's a downer, regardless of who the opposition are. When it's Kilkenny who inflict the blow, the effect is mortal, and un-fortunately there was a sense of inevitability about the outcome from that first minute.

The displeasure will have been greatest in the Dublin camp at the lack of aggression and passion in their play. As streetwise a player as Daly was, he'll also have been exasperated at some of the naivety Dublin displayed. However, because he's seen first hand in his own playing career how a young team can end up like rabbits frozen in the headlights, he's unlikely to dwell for too long on last weekend.

Dublin's year was always going to be judged on how they perform post-Kilkenny and with huge question marks now over what progress -- if any -- they've made in the last 12 months, they have to look forward.

In that regard, you can't underestimate the lift the under 21's victory over Kilkenny in Nowlan Park on Wednesday night has given them. It was the perfect antidote for the pain those on the senior panel had to endure. Remember too that having contested the last two All-Ireland minor finals as well as last year's under 21 final, and annihilated Offaly by 29 points, this appeared to be a talented Kilkenny side. So for Dublin to go into their own back yard and comprehensively beat them was a huge boost to hurling in the capital.

Three years ago, the same Dublin team knocked Kilkenny out of the Leinster minor championship. The belief these younger players have as a result, is what enabled them to do the same last Wednesday. Going forward, Oisin Gough, Peter Kelly, Liam Rushe, David Treacy and the others involved won't carry the same emotional baggage when it comes to playing Kilkenny.

If Dublin can ensure that year in, year out, they remain competitive at minor and under 21 level, the playing pitch at senior level becomes considerably more level.

Sunday Independent

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