The provincial championship in Leinster presents what is essentially a three-horse race this summer, writes Donal O’Grady.
Galway and Kilkenny are justifiable favourites for the final: Kilkenny will have a tricky assignment against Wexford but they should have learned enough to reverse their league defeat at the hands of the Slaneysiders.
It may not be easy. Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald will be in the stand, but this gives his team a cause, which is always a powerful motivator. Fitzgerald may actually find he gets a better overall view of the game from this vantage point which may be to his advantage tactically.
Kilkenny have some defensive issues that need attention.
Kieran Joyce will not, in all probability, occupy the centre-back position again but he could be very valuable sweeping between the two defensive lines.
Michael Fennelly always provided excellent cover and support for his centre-back and if he regains full fitness he will be a huge bonus to Kilkenny’s quest for silverware.
When Fennelly is absent, as he was in the 2012 Leinster final and in last year’s All Ireland final, Kilkenny are very vulnerable defensively.
Brian Cody and his management team will have to devise a defensive plan this year that prevents goal chances, a hallmark of Cody’s teams over the past 10 years.
In their halcyon days Kilkenny had six forwards who were each capable of winning the game in an instant.
However, they now have only two who would make the lineup of Kilkenny forward greats, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid. Hogan suffered from a back injury during the league which curtailed his effectiveness and there is no guarantee he will retain full fitness throughout the summer months.
He’s a most important cog in the Kilkenny machine, but Reid is crucial to their ambitions, as he is the axis on which the team now revolves.
Reid has now taken on the role previously operated by Henry Shefflin. He is the go-to man in times of stress, their main free-taker, ball-winner up front and the man charged with dragging them through on the days when they may not be firing on all cylinders.
However, there are two crucial differences between Reid and Shefflin. The latter was seldom asked to perform this role in the Walsh Cup or the league in their most successful years; Shefflin also had better players around him in supporting roles. For the second successive year, Reid has played this role from the beginning of the year. Without him would Kilkenny have retained their Division 1A status this year, or in 2016?
However, it’s difficult to maintain the form required to fulfil the role of saviour in every league and championship game, particularly when it comes to August and September.
If this was early Christian times, St Jarlath — taking a leaf from St Paul’s book — might dispatch a letter to the Galwegians entreating the followers and disciples of Micheal Donoghue’s team to be patient with the recent Allianz League winners. He would beseech them to understand the performance they served up against Tipp will be very difficult — well nigh impossible — to replicate. Jarlath would refer to the fact carrying the extra burden of favouritism will heap pressure on players who have suffered in the past under this heavy load.
Opponents will also be well warned and well aware of their strengths — and set up accordingly. In his final few lines Jarlath could appeal to former players and managers to follow the lead of the Kingdom and those of the diocese of Ossory, whose saints include St Kieran and St Canice. Sporting disciples in these areas, particularly former greats, always support their team in public while Jarlath could mention that some in the City of the Tribes were less than complimentary when the team needed encouragement rather than criticism in times past.
Galway open against the Dubs in Tullamore this weekend, a game fraught with danger. If I were a Galway fan I would be far happier if this game was at headquarters, where the wide open space would suit them nicely.
We know Galway, who served up a near-flawless second-half performance against Tipp, will not reach these heights against Dublin. They were well motivated for the league final, with old scores to settle and markers to lay down.
All teams go out to play as well as possible but the stimuli that provided the ultra- positive response in Limerick may not be duplicated for the Dublin game.
Turning in two superb consecutive performances is not beyond the bounds of possibility, but Dublin may ensure the game is a tight dogfight, with a premium on space and time — unlike Galway’s league final.
In tight games patience on the field and in the stands becomes a virtue.
If Galway win in Tullamore they have an easy semi-final and will likely meet Kilkenny in the Leinster final. If I were in Micheal Donoghue’s shoes I would want to win Leinster ugly, and the tighter the games the better. I would only want a reprise of the league final on September 3, starting at 3.30pm.
Dublin, though rank outsiders, look to be the only other Leinster contender capable of winning the Bob O’Keeffe Cup.
They come in well under the radar, with absolutely no expectations, dismissed by bookies and pundits alike against raging hot favourites Galway. They have nothing to lose.
They’ll view this game as a chance of redemption after relegation, as a good opportunity for progression as they will have little difficulty in their semi-final. They also know if they get to the final they won’t fear their likely opponents, Kilkenny, who they might have beaten (with 15 men) in their last league game.
Their biggest obstacle is an inability to replicate their Parnell Park performances in Croke Park while the lack of a goal-scoring hit-man has also stymied their progress. They’re outsiders but they cannot be discounted.
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