Sixteen months ago, Ger Cunningham was only a handful of wet weekends into the Dublin job when he decided to poke the bear. Or, should that be, Cat.
“They’re losing top players,” he said of Kilkenny’s glut of retirements including JJ Delaney, Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh.
“From that point of view, it’s probably less intimidating but they still have an awful lot of very good players. Hopefully, some more of them might go!”
Cunningham was diplomatic but it was the first of several comments outside the Kilkenny camp that didn’t go unnoticed inside it, interpreted as a perceived slight that they were a weakened entity. Fast forward to the present day and, notwithstanding Ger Loughnane’s “functional” remark about Brian Cody’s side, the same motivation isn’t there.
“That’s what was hurting the players behind the scenes but that’s gone, it’s not in their armour anymore,” admits former Kilkenny star Charlie Carter.
“They wanted to show they could win one without the boys. As much as they did, Galway’s fade-out in the second half of the final was shocking. Kilkenny are vulnerable. We wouldn’t be racing into the bookies and taking the short odds like other years.
“Kilkenny are working off limited resources. I’m worried long-term because they simply have to avoid injuries. Making the shortest run to the All-Ireland semi-final is essential. In fact, it’s become more and more important for Kilkenny to go through the front door. I would maintain there are some good hurlers among the U21s even though they lost to Westmeath but they haven’t been brought through.”
Following the minors and U21s’ ever-so early Leinster exits (did you know Kilkenny conceded home advantage to Westmeath for their U21 game?), even more will be expected of the seniors although it’s obvious their pool of talent is finite. In the 2014 championship, Cody used 28 players. Last summer, he operated with just 22 and four of them were one-time substitutes.
Cody’s use of his bench has been more infrequent in recent times. In last year’s league, he brought on 11 in six matches. In the seven fixtures this year, he deployed 18 but at least five were injury-related. Even when things were going awry against Clare in April’s Division 1 final, he called on just three replacements.
Admittedly, Kilkenny had several players on the treatment table at the time but Cody’s reluctance to use his reserves was in keeping with form, perhaps going some way to justifying Liam Sheedy’s recent comments that they are not among the two strongest panels in the country at present.
“We definitely don’t have the best squad,” Carter remarks.
“There is not many snapping at the heels of the established players. Mark Bergin was brought in last week, 10 days before a championship match. That tells you a lot. There are possibly better lads that are in with Cody like Pat Hartley of Tullogher/Rosbercon but that’s the way it is.
“If Richie Hogan isn’t fit, you might see Michael Fennelly moved to centre-forward to mark Liam Rushe. Eoin Larkin should come in straight away because the bench is that weak. Kevin Kelly has done well in club matches but hasn’t cemented a starting place for himself.
“Michael Fennelly can’t train a whole lot, which for a man who makes the team tick, is worrying. A lot of Kilkenny’s year will depend on how long they avoid injury. Form is a bit of a concern too. Joey Holden had differences of agreement with Eoin Murphy against Clare. It didn’t seem they got their calls right. Teams seem to have started identifying Kilkenny can be got at in the air.”
The low-key, almost indifferent, build-up to this game has little in common with the 2013 game in Portlaoise when Dublin were fancied to surprise Kilkenny only to be humiliated by 18 points. Neither does it chime with what preceded the following year’s games in O’Moore Park as Anthony Daly’s side made the most of Paul Murphy’s absence through injury and claimed an historic win in the replay.
Whatever about later in the season, Kilkenny’s problems shouldn’t be exposed this evening. “I wasn’t overly impressed with Dublin,” says Carter. “Wexford left them play the game on their own terms.
The Wexford corner-forwards should have shoved up and forced the goalkeeper to puck it out long. Dublin forwards are lively but they’re not big men. Turning it into a long puck-out game would go against them. Cody will have had enough chances to look at them.”
As he has his own. The problem being those players stand in front of him now mean a lot more than those who sit behind him.
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