Blues to prove 2013 glory was no fluke
MAURICE O'BRIEN joined the Dublin hurling panel in the early weeks of the 'Dalo' revolution. For the first time since 2009, the Limerick native is now contemplating a Dublin/Kilkenny summer showdown from outside the tent.
He knows that Anthony Daly will be loving every second of it, fine-tuning for Sunday's Leinster SHC final at Croke Park.
"These are the weeks he lives for," says O'Brien. "You can see the pep in the step with him in training. He'll have the head shaved and all! You know championship is coming when he comes in with a new haircut, so he'll be well primed this week."
Question is, how well primed are Dublin? They now face a Kilkenny team steeled by two semi-final battles against Galway - moreover, a Kilkenny team with vengeful considerations after last year's semi-final shock to the system.
But O'Brien reckons his former colleagues are actually in quite a good place: more settled than their vaunted opponents, with a huge carrot (back-to-back Leinster titles and the validation that last year was no flash in the pan) and with a genuine chance of taking home the spoils.
"I think it's very much a battle of equals," he tells The Herald. "Kilkenny have a lot of change-over in the last 12 months. They've tried out a lot of new guys. So Dublin, from that point of view, are much more settled. They know exactly, nearly, where they are.
"They are Leinster champions and they're a fairly settled side, and Kilkenny are the ones who probably have more question marks over them - even though they got over Galway last week, they still have more question marks over their team, I think, than Dublin do."
While Brian Cody spent the last spring road-testing a host of relative newcomers - and still retained Kilkenny's league crown, no mean feat - the state of flux hasn't ended there. The manager responded to their late collapse in the original Galway stalemate by ripping up the script with five personnel changes, a drastically altered spine and a reversion to some familiar bedrocks - Jackie Tyrrell in the corner, Brian Hogan at No 6.
"Massive change in a week," O'Brien surmises. "I heard Cody's interview - 'twas horses for courses, it mightn't be the same again this week' - but it's hard to turn around again and change it all, a week later. So you would imagine that they will be going with something very similar this week.And while it did work very well last week, there are still question marks over a lot of those guys.
"Like, Joey Holden, if he does end up facing Danny Sutcliffe on a one-on-one, you'd be happy with that. He's a relative newcomer to this level, and Danny's probably only back (from a broken hand) but you'd be fancying Danny in that situation."
In truth, there was a time when Dublin could never look in the mirror and see a group capable of usurping the Black-and-Amber. When Daly took over at the start of 2009, they were well back in the chasing pack while Kilkenny were in the midst of a fabled four-in-a-row that would become the derailed drive-for-five.
The previous September they had laid waste to Waterford. If 2008 represented the peak of their omnipotence, they were still close to that rarefied level in '09 when Dublin took their first forward leap, qualifying for a Leinster final.
As it happened, they would lose by just two goals (2-18 to 0-18), honour intact.
"We weren't expected (to win)," recalls O'Brien, an unused sub that day. "We got the performance and you still end up losing by six points."
It didn't always go that way. He particularly recounts the Leinster semi-finals of 2010 (which O'Brien started, at wing-back) and 2012 (an 18-point implosion in Portlaoise) as "two bad beatings" against opponents who were always "the benchmark".
The 2011 Allianz League final - a scarcely believable 0-22 to 1-7 demolition job - was a milestone of sorts, O'Brien scoring two points off the bench. But last summer's two-game duel in Portlaoise was the real breakthrough.
"Drawing the game last year was the watershed," he reflects, albeit there was still an unanswered question hovering in the dressing-room air afterwards, namely "Is there a backlash coming?"
It never materialised. Now the same group - minus O'Brien - is on the cusp of a Leinster back-to-back.
"The form of the key players is the main thing," he outlines. "You're looking at Danny, you're looking at Liam Rushe, you're looking at Peter Kelly, you're looking at Conal.
"Conal's performance, out of the four of them, was probably the only one that was up to scratch in the Wexford game. I know Danny was missing, but Liam was carrying an injury and it looked fairly obvious looking in, that he wasn't comfortable for a lot of the game.
"Peter Kelly certainly struggled for periods on Conor McDonald as well, so full-back and centre-back ... you need fairly big performances from both of them on Sunday. Look, they're the marquee players and they don't let you down on the big day."
And a verdict?
"Quietly confident," he replies. "It will be a titanic battle, but I think they're primed. It's really the time for this team to go on and, I suppose, show last year wasn't a flash in the pan. That they're a serious team, here for the long haul. Putting a second Leinster title with it would really put that to bed."