Kilkenny are still just one victory away from being in an All-Ireland SHC semi-final despite their three-point loss to Wexford in the Leinster final last Sunday.
Standing in their way of a place in the last four of the All-Ireland series will be, most likely, Cork, assuming the Rebels overcome the challenge of Westmeath.
Therefore, the Cats will have a mammoth task ahead of them as they attempt to progress to what will be a meeting with Limerick if Tipperary win their respective quarter-final encounter.
Yet, if Brian Cody’s outfit negotiate the hurdle of an All-Ireland quarter-final, Adrian Mullen is extremely likely to come into the GAA/GPA Young Hurler of the Year reckoning.
Kyle Hayes won the award last year and was immense for Limerick in their 12-point Munster final destruction of the Premier.
However, the last man to win back-to-back Young Hurler of the Year accolades was Tipp’s Eoin Kelly in 2001 and ’02 and so the Kildimo-Pallaskenry talent has the history of selection against him.
Hayes might emulate the Mullinahone man, but recent evidence suggests the award could go to a different player.
Mullen could be that player if Kilkenny advance to the All-Ireland semi-finals. And even if they fail to do so, the Ballyhale attacker has impressed so much this year, that future individual success would not come as any sort of surprise.
Already, Mullen received the AIB Club Hurler of the Year for his exploits with Ballyhale in the earlier part of 2019.
He shot 0-5 from open play for Henry Shefflin’s outfit in their 17-point demolition of St Thomas in the final of that competition on St Patrick’s Day and has not looked back since.
Generally, Mullen has performed exceptionally well for Cody’s charges. He did not feature so well in Kilkenny’s defeat to Galway – Mullen was substituted in the 32nd minute of that contest in Nowlan Park as Richie Hogan replaced him – but, overall, he has been a revelation, both as a wing-forward and a deep-lying corner-forward.
In both clashes with Wexford, Mullen was on the man of the match shortlists and it was striking, given his age, how willing he was to lead by example in the provincial decider last Sunday.
Bar TJ Reid, Mullen contributed the most to Kilkenny’s cause including raising three white flags, two of which he emphatically drilled between the posts in a more free-flowing first period.
Aside from the scores, however, Mullen’s work-ethic was extraordinary. He covered an incredible amount of ground throughout the game and tormented Wexford’s defenders when they were in possession, attempting to launch attacks from their own 45-metre line.
If Cork go on to secure that meeting with Kilkenny, John Meyler will be mindful of the fact the Leesiders will also require a plan to curb Mullen and not just focus, primarily, on denying Reid the freedom of the park.
Meyler will have to think outside the box in preparing to counter Mullen.
Mark Coleman might be detailed to cover the Ballyhale man. Yet, here is a curveball worth considering: Sacrifice Daniel Kearney’s offensive prowess and ask him to man-mark Mullen.
In terms of game-intelligence, pace and energy, Mullen and Kearney are of a similar ilk and both men could engage in a fascinating duel.
Mullen is not one for staying in and around his positional zone anyway, so Kearney might be best-suited to roaming with him.
If Cork were to negate Mullen and be as disciplined as they can be to reduce the number of frees Reid could score, the Rebels will have one foot in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Additionally, Cody will require a higher percentage return from his players in terms of winning their own puck-out.
Of Eoin Murphy’s 27 restarts, Kilkenny only won 17 of them. Granted, Wexford only won 17 of their 34 so the statistics might just be illustrating how hotly-contested an encounter it was rather than any weakness on the Cats’ part.
Nevertheless, Cody will want his men to win more of their own restarts in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Furthermore, he will have fumed at the fact his side hit 12 wides to Wexford’s three.
Kilkenny engineered 28 scoring opportunities in open play and only took 14 of them.
They will hardly be as wasteful in their next assignment.
In the probable All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork, the midfield battle will be intense.
Bill Cooper and Darragh Fitzgibbon have been outstanding for Cork, but James Maher was extremely impressive for Kilkenny in the Leinster final.
If Cillian Buckley returns to partner Maher in the middle-third, sparks will fly between those pairings.
In fact, it could be the best midfield tussle all summer. Cooper and Fitzgibbon will need to perform at their optimum to shade those exchanges.
Maher even chipped in with a first-half score for the Cats and, with a little more composure, could have registered second and third points later in the match.
However, a shortage of composure was a theme throughout Kilkenny’s output in the game, especially in the second half, and particularly in the last quarter.
By half-time, Cody’s side had 0-15 on the board. Yet, they added just 0-8 thereafter which is, everybody will surely agree, most unKilkenny-like.
Still, as Cody said, Kilkenny remain in the hunt.
“It’s a Leinster final and we’d love to win a Leinster final, but we leave today in the quarter-final of the championship.
“That’s the most important thing, really.”