Tuesday 25 October 2016

New Dubs face their acid test

For all the talk of Kilkenny 'vulnerability', Cody's vintage crop have track record of getting it right when it matters

David Treacy
David Treacy

The last time Dublin hurlers ventured down to Portlaoise for a June showdown with All-Ireland holders bedecked in Black and Amber stripes, they won. Famously.

Back then, in 2013, Kilkenny were perceived as strangely vulnerable ... and the unfolding events of that riotously unpredictable summer would confirm that the aura of invincibility long attached to Brian Cody's team had slipped.

What happened next? Kilkenny would dust themselves down and go back-to-back.

They haven't gone away, you know.

Now we've arrived at the seasonal watershed of another Leinster SHC semi-final in O'Moore Park. Again, there's a suspicion afoot that Kilkenny are 'vulnerable'.

Never mind the long-abandoned claim that the second best team in Ireland could be found in the Nowlan Park 'possibles' dressing-room - the accusation now is that they don't even have a bench.

Moreover, the last time they played competitively, their defence leaked 4-22 against Clare - their highest ever concession, league or championship, under Cody.

That NHL semi-final in Thurles raised fresh doubts about Kilkenny's capacity to go three-in-a-row. Those doubts were amplified when Richie Hogan broke his hand on club duty with Danesfort.

When you take all the above into consideration - the diminution of Kilkenny's famed strength in depth; their alarming porousness against Clare; the loss, for now at least, of their 2014 Hurler of the Year - surely there is a case to be made for a Sky Blue ambush?

Hmmm, maybe so ... but we're loath to drive the first stake through the heart of Team Cody. Dublin have been down this M7 Motorway before, believing all the jigsaw pieces were in place to finally take out the Cats.

In 2013, of course, their time had come ... but Dublin were equally upbeat heading to Portlaoise in 2012 and by the final whistle, bedraggled and bereft, they were staring at an 18-point meltdown.

This short history lesson illustrates just why Dublin must bring their 'A' game to Laois HQ. Here's another statement of the bleedin' obvious: Dublin's inconsistency is such that you can never tell beforehand if they're about to unleash their 'A' or 'Z' game.


Still, Ger Cunningham's evolving Sky Blue crew deserve to be cut some slack. They survived comfortably in Division 1A, all the while bedding in new players and a new way of playing that puts a massive premium on possession retention. Then they swatted aside Wexford with almost contemptuous ease.

It's also worth stressing how much Dublin have changed since they met Kilkenny in the Leinster final two years ago.

Ten of the Kilkenny team that cruised to victory that day are named to start this evening. Contrast this with Dublin: eight of their 2014 line-up aren't even available, namely Alan Nolan, Stephen Hiney, Michael Carton, Alan McCrabbe, Danny Sutcliffe, Conal Keaney, Colm Cronin (who recently opted off the panel) and long-term injury absentee Peter Kelly. And just three of that team started against Wexford three weeks ago: Liam Rushe, Johnny McCaffrey and David O'Callaghan.

Even if several more of the panel's experienced core will see game-time this evening, there's no mistaking that Dublin are a team in transition facing a Kilkenny still hugely reliant on the old reliables.


Can Dublin push them to the brink? Well, if Cody hasn't closed off those gaping holes that appeared in front of his full-back line against Clare, then Eamonn Dillon will surely wreak havoc with his pace and predatory eye, ably supported by Mark Schutte and 'Dotsy'. And if Niall McMorrow is afforded the space in which he thrived against Wexford, then he'll continue to snipe points for fun from the '40'.

But Paul Murphy, Kilkenny's prince of man-markers, didn't play against Clare and he's back now. Moreover, Cody isn't the type of manager to file away that Banner blitz as a once-off.

Besides, his forward options here are considerably bolstered by the return of the Fennelly brothers, Michael and Colin, and Eoin Larkin, all absent for that league semi-final.

For his all legendary ailments, one can only presume that Michael Fennelly is fit to start (whatever about finish) the game. His relocation to centre-forward is surely not on a whim, either. With Walter Walsh and the peerless Reid on either flank, it's safe to assume that Rushe and his towering wing-back colleagues cannot expect the same near-total aerial dominance they enjoyed under the Wexford puckout.

In summary, this is a new Dublin against a very familiar Kilkenny, who remain the benchmark for everyone.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Dublin 10/3 Draw 11/1 Kilkenny 2/7

VERDICT: Kilkenny

Leinster SHC semi-final: Dublin v Kilkenny, tonight, Portlaoise, 7.0, live Sky Sp 1

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