Wexford youngster Conor McDonald litmus test for Cats' Joey Holden
KILKENNY fans would doubtless sleep easier in their beds if they knew JJ Delaney was still around to guard the square on Sunday - especially with a teenage Wexford tearaway called Conor McDonald hoping to wreak havoc in his absence.
Instead, Delaney has bowed out at the summit and he fully expects Joey Holden to be anointed as his full-back heir when Brian Cody announces the Kilkenny team, tomorrow night, for the opening defence of their Leinster and All-Ireland crowns.
"I'd see Joey slotting in there and I can't see him missing a beat," says the Kilkenny legend of his likely successor, a player who faces the additional responsibility of Black-and-Amber captaincy this summer.
Delaney has swapped the Nowlan Park dressing-room for life as a Sky Sports hurling analyst. As the man who executed that most sublime of hooks on Tipperary's Séamus Callanan in last year's All-Ireland final replay, he knows all about facing deadly assassins and he rates McDonald, still a month shy of his 20th birthday, as already among the best.
"It will be a litmus test. He's up there as one of the top three or four full-forwards in the game," says Delaney.
"Whoever is going to start full-back will be there for the next three or four years. When I went in full-back, I had probably six or eight months grace to get to know the position.
"It's not like any other position because you have to hold back a bit - you can't go bald-headed for every ball. You have to dictate when you go because you're the last line of defence ... if you're turned, it's a goal.
"The way the modern game has gone, there could be one, maybe two at most in the full-forward line. A lot of teams are drawing out an extra half-forward or midfielder there.
"It will suit the more agile person. I think Joey will start full-back. Paul (Murphy) hits a mountain of ball in the corner. He'll hit more ball there than full-back. He is a specialised corner-back. Has that position nailed down for the last four or five years.
"Joey has been flying with the club (Ballyhale Shamrocks) as well. Man of the match in the All-Ireland club final, so he's plenty of experience at full-back," he stresses.
Much of Holden's previous inter-county experience has come at wing-back, where Delaney himself excelled in a previous incarnation.
Yet, the latter maintains, there is no better place to serve your apprenticeship than within Nowlan Park.
"Every night in training you'd be getting the run-around," Delaney recalls.
"You'd be up against a few of the best forwards in the game. Just trying to keep your head above water. Try to learn from the sessions. It's either sink or swim then."
p Kilkenny great JJ Delaney will be analysing the Leinster SHC semi-final between Galway and Laois live on Sky Sports this Saturday.