Title landscape unchanged since Kilkenny quake
WHEN Kilkenny beat Galway by 25 points in the league at Nowlan Park last April, Brian Cody assessed the supine performance by the visitors in a generous light.
"It's not a true reflection of the abilities they have in this team. It was just one of those days for them," he said at the time.
When Galway beat Kilkenny by 10 points in last Sunday's Leinster final, Anthony Cunningham's reflections on what the season holds for Kilkenny were equally pragmatic.
"There's nothing worse than a wounded Cat," he said. "Kilkenny will be back. They were a bit off-colour early on but they have a few players to come back in who are huge for them. Whoever faces them in the next round will be really up against it because Kilkenny have so much experience and talent. They'll be up for the fight."
Both Cody and Cunningham were right, wisely opting not to be overly influenced by what were freakishly poor performances by their opponents on given days.
It's not territory with which Kilkenny are very familiar so their relaunch bid will provide one of the fascinations of a championship season that had, up to last Sunday, been all too predictable.
Now, all has changed -- not just for Galway and Kilkenny but for the other remaining contenders too. Suddenly, the qualifier survivors -- Cork, Wexford, Clare and Limerick -- see real possibilities, while Munster finalists Tipperary and Waterford will be encouraged too by the sight of Kilkenny being made to look so very ordinary after a year in which they dominated all-comers.
Ironically, though, last Sunday's result could make the All-Ireland road all the more difficult for the Munster winners since there's every likelihood that they will meet Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final, where they would normally expect to meet a lesser force.
As for Kilkenny, their reaction to Sunday's defeat will be closely watched. Inevitably, there will be those who will make strident arguments as to why Kilkenny are headed for decline. In many cases, they will be the same people who, prior to the Leinster final, would have predicted the easiest of wins for the defending champions.
Kilkenny have three weeks to refocus for the All-Ireland quarter-final, where their opponents will come from the Cork v Wexford or Limerick v Clare qualifier games. The last time Kilkenny were shunted down the qualifier route in 2004, they had to win two games to reach the quarter-finals, where they drew with Clare. They won the replay and the All-Ireland semi-final but by the time they played Cork in the final they had played six championship games and gave an unusually flat performance.
It's different now. The gaps to the quarter-final and (if Kilkenny win) to the semi-final are ideal for a successful relaunch.
The one fear for Kilkenny is that, having been knocked out of their front-door stride, they will find it difficult to adjust to the new challenge around the back. Also, opposition will be feeling more confident now.
Ultimately, Kilkenny's medical bulletin will probably decide where the rest of the season takes them. They badly missed JJ Delaney and Michael Fennelly last Sunday, while Michael Rice was back after injury but made quite an impact as a sub. If that trio are on full throttle later on, Kilkenny will be a different proposition to last Sunday.
Losing to Galway certainly wasn't in the Kilkenny plan but when the aftershocks of the championship's first major earthquake subside, the landscape won't look too different.
Instead of requiring two more wins to retain the All-Ireland title, Kilkenny need three. Only Galway are better placed than that it terms of the number of games they need to win. Given that reality, plus Kilkenny's incredible track record, it's no surprise that they remain hot favourites to retain their relationship with Liam MacCarthy.