In his 21 seasons as Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody is not sure if there has ever been a more even and finely balanced hurling championship.
Which three counties survive the Munster bearpit is anybody’s guess, while across the way in Leinster, four into three doesn’t go and so one from Galway, Dublin, Kilkenny, and Wexford will be left standing idle with an empty summer in front of them from June 16 onwards.
Cody reckons there are up to seven counties who will fancy themselves to last the pace right through to mid-August. Within that group, he has no problem singling out Limerick as the “top team”, a side which Kilkenny led with five minutes remaining in their All-Ireland quarter-final meeting at Semple Stadium last summer.
Richie Leahy, Billy Ryan, John Donnelly, and Martin Keoghan, an U21 quartet from 2017 and all of whom featured against the Treaty County last July, are a year older and wiser on the inter-county front, but instead of a maturing Kilkenny side building on the stern challenge they posed to Galway and Limerick in 2018, the lead-in to their championship opener has been overshadowed by the injuries which have ruled Eoin Murphy, Conor Delaney, Cillian Buckley, Rob Lennon, and James Maher out of Saturday’s visit of Dublin.
Kilkenny, at full strength, would be right up there in terms of Liam MacCarthy contenders, but their predicament means a fourth-place finish in Leinster - not since 1996 has a Kilkenny team failed to advance beyond the provincial championship - is a strong possibility.
“With a few minutes to go against Limerick, we were in a very strong position. Does that put us way off the mark, I’d be thinking it doesn’t,” said Cody.
“It’s a massively even [championship]. Munster is miles away from us because we don’t have concerns about Munster but looking at it now, there are brilliant teams in it. We’re looking at Leinster and, to me, anyone can beat anyone on a given day.
I would always say the team that are All-Ireland champions right now are entitled to the respect of being the best team in the country and God knows they proved that in the league.
“But would they be thinking they are on a different level to anyone else? You can be sure they are not.
“Chances are there are six or seven teams saying to themselves, ‘if we can get a run going, we can win this thing’. Do we want to be one of those? Of course, we do.”
Vital to Kilkenny emerging from Leinster is taking maximum points off Dublin this weekend. In the corresponding fixture 12 months ago, Dublin led the Cats entering injury-time, only for a Liam Blanchfield goal on 71 minutes to tip the balance in favour of Cody’s side. He’s expecting matters to be similarly tight at Nowlan Park.
“Look at Dublin’s league. They beat Tipperary in the quarter-final in Thurles. That was a statement enough for anybody who hadn’t the realisation at that stage how good they are. Dublin are up there with the very best teams. You can say, sure, of course, you would say that. But I believe it. It’s the truth.”
He concluded: “There are two teams that are not going to come out of Leinster and two teams not going to come out of Munster.
“The reality is it could be any of us. Even though we have injuries, I would still have massive trust in the players who are available to us.”