IT’S started sooner than I’d imagined – it’s usually reserved for the dark winter days when club championships are over and journalists and columnists struggles to fill column inches with ‘real’ stuff before the start of the preseason tournaments and National League.
So it was a measure of surprise that I chanced upon not one, but two columns in the past few days asking ‘are Kilkenny are unbeatable?’
It’s from the same school as thought as the ‘hurling is dead’ article and the ‘time for a fifth tier for the hurling championship’ call.
During the dark days of last winter, the predictions of a more open hurling championship were entertained – or at least one in which Kilkenny might possibly be rated as second favourites – due to some high profile retirements.
And when King Henry decided to hang up his inter-county hurl after his club championship run with Ballyhale Shamrocks ended, forecasts abounded that Boylesports and Paddy Power would have trouble separating the top six in the MacCarthy Cup betting for the next decade.
It’s all a bit different now. Brian Cody’s side lifted a 70th Leinster SHC on Sunday and the Cats looked as awesome as at any time when Shefflin, Walsh, Hickey, Delaney, Brennan et al were on the pitch together.
Sunday’s win added fuel to the fire. Galway – seen (yet again) as dark horses for the title this year, due to their impressive dismantling of Dublin and Laois were supposed to prove the winter theories that Kilkenny had finally been drawn back into the pack.
At the very least, Galway would confirm Kilkenny as human, cut through their defence two or three times over the 70 minutes, and pose Cody a number of questions as he looked forlornly to his subs’ bench which isn’t laden with quite as many All Stars as it once was.
Instead, it did the opposite. Kilkenny are practically being handed the MacCarthy Cup in mid-July. I don’t agree. Yes, they were superb, but Galway also contributed to their own downfall. And that’s the single biggest difference between Cody’s Kilkenny and every other team.
It’s not that Kilkenny take the right option every single time (no team or player does that), but they take the right option a higher percentage of times than every other team, and when they don’t, they learn from their mistakes.
That may be down to a couple of decisive factors. There is a substitute’s bench that can replace almost any player on black and amber with a hurler of the same quality if someone is having an off- day; and there is a driven, generational competition for places. But that in itself isn’t enough – it’s Cody’s leadership, it’s the concentration levels generated by the atmosphere of the day-in, day-out looking over the shoulder at who’s going to take your place, the knowledge that failure to perform means being called ashore, no matter what your reputation or contribution in the past game.
Do they have the best hurlers? Better than Clare? Better than Tipp? I don’t think so. Would Kilkenny have reaped such a poor harvest from the underage and
club success that Galway has enjoyed? I doubt it. There’s only one squad in the country with the culture of sacrifice and bloody-mindedness required to dominate.
Looking at last Sunday’s Leinster final, of the six Galway forwards, only Joe Canning and Cyril Donnellan made any sort of contribution. The other four were fairly anonymous throughout. You may point to the 3-28 that Galway posted against Laois and put their poor return against Kilkenny down to the superb Cats’ defensive unit. But almost half of the 3-28 came from Canning.
Iarla Tannion is exactly the type of ball winner that Galway have been crying out for years, but time and again he won the hard ball and took the wrong option.
Three times (at least) in the final 15 minutes, Galway hit long, aimless balls into their forwards that were gobbled up by Kilkenny with no maroon jersey within 25 metres. Would Kilkenny do the same?
Would Kilkenny continue to give away stupid frees? Would they hit as many misplaced passes? Would forwards continue to run down the same blind alleys? Kilkenny do all those things too but not for an entire 70 minutes.
One thing they don’t do is persist with game-plans that aren’t working. Last year was the same story. The 2014 drawn game was eulogised as a fantastic game of hurling. It wasn’t. It was an exciting last 12 minutes before which Kilkenny started thinking about the next round (see, they do make mistakes).
To be genuine contenders, 100 per cent concentration is required 100 per cent of the time.
Tipp have the ability to produce those concentration levels. On Sunday they should have too much for an improving Waterford side at Thurles. They have stepped up at least one level since they beat Waterford in the league semi-final. A focussed Tipperary is a joy to watch – and they have plenty to focus minds on Sunday – a home crowd, a chance to put Waterford in their box after that league defeat, and perhaps as much as a 41st Munster title, the avoidance of Kilkenny in a back door draw. Tipp by six.
In Ulster, Antrim will want to make a statement after what has been a woeful year for the Saffrons. The county is at an all-time low, and not just in hurling terms.
It is also the best chance that Down have had for a while to lift the Liam Harvey Cup. It’s been 17 years since Down last lifted Liam and face an Antrim team without a number of first choice players who realistically have just wanted the season to end since the defeat to Westmeath in the Leinster round robin series.
It’s a great chance for Down to lift their fifth title, and having scored 3-16 against Derry in the semi-final will go to Owenbeg confident of an upset. Their concession of 3-14 against Armagh would be a worry however and Antrim’s younger players drafted into the squad after the Westmeath defeat will add hunger to the Saffron cause for another senior title. That should be enough to get Antrim over the line for their 51st title – just.