It’s a foolish man who ever writes off Kilkenny in the Leinster championship, but there can be no denying they have fallen down the pecking order somewhat heading into this year’s competition. Often the poor relation when compared to Munster, the province needs to be given some credit for regularly, in recent times, churning out top class content among four realistic contenders.
An indifferent league, summarised by their fairly emphatic loss to the All-Ireland champions at home will have stung no-one more than Brian Cody, who must be credited for remaining steadfast in his role, despite having surely seen the reduction in their dominance coming swiftly down the line. This squad is without the depth and volume of exceptional talent of previous sides, but is still more than capable of beating any of the top teams on any given day.
Without their Ballyhale contingent for much of the league, their addition will provide a much needed boost, and the talismanic TJ Reid’s importance cannot be emphasised enough, though his contributions from play may need to be upped if they are to tip the finely balanced scale that is a championship game in their favour.
The loss of All-Star goalkeeper Eoin Murphy is not yet confirmed, but seems likely, and basic statistics would indicate that this will lead to the concession of more goals, something they can ill-afford. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that Murphy single-handedly reduced the margin of defeat in several games last year, and one senses that Limerick could have eased to a more stress-free win in the All-Ireland quarter-final had it not been for his heroics.
The Cats were comprehensively beaten in the Leinster final replay last year, having damn near retained their crown for the first time since 2016 in the first outing against a heavily fancied Galway. As mentioned previously, the weakened Galway ranks poses a significant opportunity for the likes of a wounded beast like Kilkenny, who have been lying in wait for a weak spot to appear. Their culture remains merciless, and if presented with an opportunity, they still have the firepower to finish the job. It’s a mindset that’s embedded, and solidified by the return of their stalwarts.
Without unearthing the same levels of talent as they have previously, they’ve still managed to mine a few diamonds of late. Richie Leahy, John Donnelly, and Liam Blanchfield are due a big 2019, while young Ballyhale star, Adrian Mullen could be the Cats’ answer to Aaron Gillane, ultimately. Young Huw Lawlor could also potentially be the answer to their full-back woes of late.
Despite not enjoying the same dizzying heights of dominance as they have historically, there’s still an audible hesitation and trepidation when supporters from less-successful counties, without a strong record against them enter into the fixture. They demand respect, always, and never give an inch. The opening game against Dublin is a potential banana skin, and is huge for both sides. Kilkenny don’t take losing at home too well, and will be primed for a melée.
All-Ireland contenders is probably a bridge too far, yet even that is uttered with an undeniable reluctance.
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