The Irish Mail on Sunday
The big Cats are back and waiting in the long grass for overrated champions
IKNOW there are romantics out there who will not want to hear this, but Kilkenny are ready to be champions again. The good news, for those who confuse excitement for greatness, is that this summer’s Championship is going to be something special, better even than last year.
Yes, last year’s Championship was good and for excitement, colour and all-round giddiness, nothing could compare to its stupendous climax. The thing is, though, something was missing. It might not have mattered to Clare last year who they had to beat in getting over the line, but you can bet it is something now gnawing at Davy Fitzgerald.
He knows his side never faced the ultimate test, but this time there is no way they will duck either Kilkenny or Tipperary.
Have no doubt, along with the champions, these are the top three teams in the land with Dublin – provided they get their act together – the only other capable of holding their own against them.
On that basis alone, this year’s Championship has to be better. You just know that Brian Cody, who bristles every time last year’s Championship is hailed incorrectly as the greatest of all time, is just itching to get at Clare in particular.
He has set up his team this spring with that in mind, bringing in the likes of Brian Kennedy and Pádraig Walsh and relocating Cillian Buckley to his strongest position at wing-back to ensure that his team will be ready for the champions.
Of course, it will be argued that Henry Shefflin’s injury is a potential wrecking ball to their title chances but I’m not buying that. I believe that, deep down, Cody was prepared for the fact that he might have not have Shefflin this summer, certainly not as a player that he could lean on like he had in the past.
I have no doubt that, if Cody has one regret, it is the emphasis he placed on Shefflin in the run-up to the 2010 All-Ireland final, when he sought to defy medical reason and common sense to play a badly injured player in the biggest game in Kilkenny’s history.
But you live and you learn. It was interesting from the outset this year that Cody entrusted the free-taking responsibilities to TJ Reid rather than Shefflin, a pointer, perhaps, that he was steeling himself for a summer without the great man.
But he has enough quality in his team to take that hit, with the two Richie’s, Power and Hogan, capable of bearing a heavy load.
Tipperary are in a pretty similar place in that Eamon O’Shea must place his trust in the players that served him well throughout the League rather than obsess about the fitness of Lar Corbett.
They have new leaders now and he needs to place trust in the likes of Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher, Noel McGrath, John O’Dwyer and Seamus Callanan, rather than looking to the likes of Corbett and Eoin Kelly.
Tipperary have the best young talented hurlers out there but there comes a time when you just let them off the leash.
And Clare? I am not writing them off. All their focus has been on the summer, and it says much about their quality that they coasted through the League with such comfort. But when they got to the play-offs, you could actually see them switch off.
Winning the League would have meant nothing to them, but defending the Championship means everything. There is no doubt that they have the talent, the desire and, in Davy Fitzgerald, the manager, but what will count against them this time is that they will have no surprises to throw at the opposition. There will be no radical overhaul of their gameplan which is sourced in movement and pace because this is what suits them.
THE difference this time is the others have had time to lay a trap. And, when you consider an honest but ultimately average Cork team could push them so hard last year, you would have to conclude it would be easily within Kilkenny or Tipperary’s capability to go one better.
Those who believe that the return of two of the game’s great powers will dilute a little the appeal of the Championship really should go and get a life.
Novelty, freshness and excitement is all fine and good but, for those of us who like our hurling full of fire and fury, the return of Kilkenny and Tipperary will make this a summer never to be forgotten.