Aficionados have been itching to see Kilkenny. The go of the All-Ireland champions is best indication of whether 2016 will replicate 2015. Once the holders are seen and assessed, the relevant adjustments can be made.
Pre-season comment stressed vulnerability to injuries. This scenario has come to pass. Tomorrow, Dublin are up in a Leinster semi-final and Kilkenny look bare bones on panel depth.
The obvious names (Ger Aylward, Michael Fennelly, Richie Hogan) have been flagged. Now there is more. Last week, Joe Lyng’s season was ended by cruciate injury. Seemingly training at corner-back, Lyng had been tipped to start against Dublin.
There will be no tears, and understandably so, for the predicament — 11 senior All-Irelands in 16 seasons obliterates sentiment. The splatter of online vitriol after the Westmeath U21s recently beat Kilkenny spoke for itself. Beyond the white noise of computer hum and office static, the soundtrack was Bob Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’.
Dublin have their own difficulties. Peter Kelly’s absence from full-back slots as the key one. His replacement, Cian O’Callaghan, is doughty but unconvincing. O’Callaghan is an all out hurler, not the best trait for square’s edge. Kilkenny will seek to thrive at full-forward.
Any time Kilkenny struggled from 2009 onwards, the core problem was evaporating possession in the half-forward line.
They might pick Fennelly and Walsh as the attack’s right side, with Larkin at 12 or 15. This arrangement would mean Walsh could be swapped with Fennelly, dynamic but never an apt fetcher, under every third or so puckout, granting best of both worlds. Besides, Walsh tends to operate best from top of the right.
The presence of Peter Kelly (plus Joey Boland and Danny Sutcliffe) would leave Dublin’s case a jolt more convincing. Still, youthful talent in the form of Shane Barrett, Chris Bennett, Cian Boland and Eoghan O’Donnell is a counterbalance. Kilkenny face a sticky assignment, one in which measures will have to be allotted with precision. Does Pádraig Walsh, terrific under the puckout, get moved from wing back to number 4? If he does, who hurls at 5? Conor Delaney is their coming defender but might, at 20, be considered too young.
With their opponents potentially stretched in defence, much will depend on how Niall McMorrow leads the Dublin attack. Fleet and skilful but not an orthodox centre-forward, McMorrow needs to reach another level if his side are to unleash a surprise.
We shall see. Until August arrives, the hurling championship has a Janus face, looking backwards so as to look forwards. It is another kind of judgement by adjustment. Clare are still in the All-Ireland race, via the qualifiers. But losing to Waterford by seven points last weekend shunted them right into setback. You could say management have a lot of thinking to do, except that their problem may lie in overthinking matters.
On the day, Clare performed like a karaoke version of Waterford, mimicking structures imperfectly understood. Meanwhile Davy Fitzgerald and colleagues used four players injured in one or other degree. While Oisín O’Brien performed commendably, John Conlon, Aaron Cunningham and David McInerney were patently not right. The net implication is hardly too encouraging for fit panellists.
Did it not occur to Fitzgerald the main weakness in the Waterford defence is lack of pace on its left side?
Equally, should their opposition not strive to bring about a scenario in which Noel Connors becomes the de facto sweeper?
Perish the thought but maybe Clare are hurling’s true Stepford Wives, straitjacketed by demands from above? Quality, on and off the field, was widely talked up. Item: the reach of Clare’s backroom (does it comprise 31 or 32 or 33?) was paraded in several articles. Did nobody else find all this detail, especially in a vernal context, a bit over the top? And even smacking of entitlement-itis?
The lateral truth is that an awful lot of people are still mired in the politics of Cork GAA in the 2000s. Although they cannot say so yet, there are plenty who want Clare to take an All-Ireland with Dónal Óg Cusack aboard for reasons far remote from anything Dalcassian.
No, these people want to vault far beyond applauding Clare. They want to rewrite history.
They want to be able to claim that Kilkenny would not have got such a jump on Cork and hurling and life and the universe if Cusack had been player-manager between 2007 and 2011, eliminating the reigns of Gerald McCarthy and Denis Walsh.
Like it or lump it, this drive is there. Maybe that route would have been the better one but the bridge to it is long gone. We will never know. Really, everyone needs to move on from the 2000s, if only because we are more than halfway through the 2010s.
If Clare surmount the qualifiers, good luck to them. But I wonder about a blithe perspective. Back in 2013, facing the same challenge, Clare drew Laois in Ennis. Kilkenny drew Tipperary in Nowlan Park.
That slice was a coin toss. Clare went on to win the All-Ireland, playing some ravishing hurling.
The 2016 reality is they could draw Dublin or Kilkenny in a first round qualifier on July 2. The same reality applies for the second round on July 9.
Coins will again be tossed. Three do or die games in four weeks, especially with Clare’s attritional style, forms an exacting roster.
Tomorrow evening in Portlaoise will clarify which side of the Dublin-Kilkenny equation might apply. The champions, even so straitened, should muster enough spirit to survive.