Settled Dublin can give Cats good work-out – Henderson
IT'S a measure of how far Dublin have come under Anthony Daly that Kilkenny remain the last great Leinster citadel to conquer.
Since the Clare man took over from Tommy Naughton for the 2009 campaign, their progress has been tangible, even if it has hit a few speed bumps along the way.
After they beat Wexford in a replay last weekend, Daly pointed out that it was the fourth time the sides had met this year and Dublin had yet to lose – a stat that would have puffed the chests of Dublin's hurling fraternity back in 2008.
For the last four years, Kilkenny have ended Dublin's interest in Leinster, twice at the final stage. This year is tipped to be Daly's last in charge of the Dubs, and unlikely as it may seem, tomorrow could be his final chance to put the cap on his progressive term and take the mother of all scalps against the Cats in Portlaoise.
Perhaps the Dubs would settle for a good performance. Last year, against the backdrop of relegation to Division 1B and a Walsh Cup exit at the hands of Laois, Dublin were tipped to push Kilkenny hard. Only one team turned up and Dublin were wiped.
Much of the optimism going into that game was based on 2011, when they produced a brilliant performance to win a league title, before reaching the All-Ireland semi-finals, but it seemed their progress had stalled.
John Henderson knows both counties well. A Kilkenny All Star and All-Ireland winner at minor, U-21 and senior, he coached Dublin senior hurling side Cuala and had a brief stint managing the county's U-21 side.
He has a theory on why the Dubs haven't been able to match the heights of 2011. Henderson's U-21 side lost to Laois in the Leinster championship last year, a result that wasn't as much of a surprise as it appeared, as the Dubs had lost to the midlanders at minor in 2009.
Henderson thinks that, while the underage system is producing winning teams, it might not be the best preparation for senior hurling.
"Maybe they are not producing the right type of hurler, they have a lot of the same type of players, who like to take the ball into contact.
"Where is the type of player who can bring them to the next level? You'll see that Dublin generally keep going back to the same six forwards. The likes of Ciaran Kilkenny and Cormac Costello were flair players who could play, but they are with the footballers, so the hurlers look snookered there."
Despite those setbacks and a miserable year last year, Dublin managed to win the Walsh Cup and promotion back to Division 1A, beating Limerick in the final. If lines of form reveal anything, that result looks all the more impressive after the Shannonsiders' win over Tipperary in Munster.
"Last year, they were set to give Kilkenny an awful lash," recalls Henderson. "And I know Kilkenny were ready, because they had started preparation a little earlier – but it never came.
"Dublin are under the radar again and have a more settled team. They have tinkered with lads like Liam Rushe and Conal Keaney. Stephen Hiney is back, too, and those type of players can make a team stronger."
"Still, I think they have slipped well down from the top four billing that maybe some people were giving them a couple of years back."
On the face of things, Offaly provided some hope when hitting four goals and taking a lead in at half-time, but fortune played its part too.
"They are not invincible," Henderson asserts, "but if you look at the goals, some of them were just the bounce of the ball and that won't happen on another day.
"Kilkenny is an ever-evolving team. Henry Shefflin has a fight on his hands to get fit. But you have Lester Ryan now in midfield, so Michael Fennelly can slot in at centre-forward .
Last year, they found Walter Walsh for the replay. You have a core set of players, but there are different faces coming in all the time.
"So, I don't think any analyst worth his salt will be going against Kilkenny this weekend. But Dublin are more settled now. You'd expect them to produce something along the lines of the performance they were meant to give last year."