Cats may be down but they’re not out

That hoary old headline — END OF AN ERA — is certain to find a few homes in the aftermath of Kilkenny’s defeat to Dublin in Saturday’s night Leinster senior hurling championship semi-final.

You won’t read it here though, not yet anyway.

There is no questioning the fact that Kilkenny aren’t the dominant force they were for so many years in the Brian Cody era. It’s true they won another Allianz Hurling League title this year, their seventh under Cody, and despite this loss on Saturday evening, they are still in the hunt to retain their All-Ireland title, their ninth such crown since Cody took charge in 1998. Lately though, they’ve started losing games at a rate not seen in a long while.

Go back just a few months and Kilkenny were in deep trouble in the league, lost their first two games — we hadn’t seen that in over a decade. They recovered of course, went on an unbeaten run right to the final itself, where Tipperary were the victims down in Nowlan Park.

Go back to last year in the Leinster championship and Kilkenny weren’t just beaten in the final, they were hammered off the pitch in Croke Park in the first half by Galway — we hadn’t seen that ever in their home province in the Cody era, their only previous loss in Leinster since 1999 coming as a result of a last-minute goal by Wexford in 2004.

And now this, beaten in a replay (a first in 28 years), beaten in championship for the second time in two years, beaten inside the province they have virtually ‘owned’ since 1999, and beaten by Dublin no less, a team that operated in Division 1B of the League this year, a team whose progress many (including myself) had questioned.

And so, the putative headline suggested above.

But is it the end? Has the greatest hurling team ever seen finally run out of road? I’m not convinced it has but we’re all about to find out, and sooner rather than later. A week, that’s all the time Kilkenny and Cody have now to turn things around, a week to get their season and their championship challenge back on track or indeed yes, it is the end of the road.

How fitting too that it should be against Tipperary, the team that first rose to really challenge the modern Kilkenny legend, the team that ended Kilkenny’s record five-in-a-row of All-Ireland senior titles. How fitting also that it should be in Nowlan Park, for two reasons; first, it gives Tipperary another opportunity to try the beard the lion in its den, a wounded one at that; second, if Kilkenny are to fall, then let it be at home, where their own fans can finally show their appreciation.

Will they fall? It’s possible but we should point out a few things. All those of us who were questioning Dublin have been proved wrong. They were a top side two years ago, slipped last year, but they’ve recovered and now look a team on a mission. Kudos to Anthony Daly and his management for that, kudos to the team itself also. Bear in mind then that it still took Dublin two games to get past Kilkenny and even at that, only by a goal.

Then bear in mind that Dublin beat Limerick in the hugely important Division 1B promotion final, and that Tipperary are in the same situation as Kilkenny because they were beaten by that same Limerick in the Munster semi-final. So now, a different complexion on things, no? Kilkenny should go into this game on Saturday as favourites. They’re at home, they’re battle-hardened, and by God, they’ll be fired up. Tipperary, in contrast, have been idle for a few weeks, they are hurting, they’re under more pressure. No hype, no exaggeration, this is going to be a massive game. Many of us said it at the start of the year, it had the makings of a fantastic championship this year, a lot of levelling out of standards with several teams stepping up and Kilkenny losing a step. So it has proved. And I doubt we’re finished with surprises yet.


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