Cody's Cats primed to outbox fellow heavyweights Tipperary
IT goes without saying which team -- and manager -- have more to prove when the two heavyweights return to the ring tomorrow afternoon.
Tipp have every reason to be still smarting over the surrender of their All-Ireland crown last September. Or, more specifically, the manner of that defeat, when the most amazing feature was the fact that they were still within four-point touching distance of an all-dominant Kilkenny at the final whistle.
This fixture is a mirror-image of last year's league opener, when Brian Cody's men came to Thurles nursing an even more painful grievance -- the denial of five-in-a-row immortality -- and duly cruised to a surprisingly straight-forward seven-point win.
So then, based on the above, Tipp should have the greater reserves of hunger and motivation when battle resumes at Nowlan Park. That, at any rate, is the theory.
The problem for Declan Ryan, however, is whether appetite will compensate for absenteeism. For a variety of reasons, eight of the Tipp team that started last September's final will not be standing for the anthem tomorrow.
Needless to say, the most notable absentee will be Lar Corbett following his bolt-from-the-February-blue decision to quit the panel. Lightning Lar may have been shunted to the periphery of last year's All-Ireland by the limpet-like Jackie Tyrrell, but he has scorched Kilkenny's defence in the past and his loss (presuming it remains permanent) could yet deliver a fatal blow to Tipp's prospects of reclaiming Liam MacCarthy.
And the short-term? Well, there's no place in tomorrow's starting 15 for the county's two longest serving stars, 'keeper Brendan Cummins and last year's skipper Eoin Kelly.
Midfield mainstay Shane McGrath, carrying a knock, is another omission as Tipp opt for a centrefield pairing of Brendan Maher and David Young.
Seamus Callanan and Patrick 'Bonnar' Maher are recovering from longer-term injuries, and so into the revamped mix come a brace of debutants (Donagh Maher and Adrian Ryan) and other erstwhile subs seeking to nail down a place, such as attackers Pa Bourke and Brian O'Meara.
And Kilkenny? Well, Henry Shefflin is making an unhappy habit of missing league campaigns through injury.
Eleven of King Henry's colleagues started for Leinster against Munster in last weekend's entertaining interpro semi-final at the same venue -- to be subsequently joined by Colin Fennelly -- so you could argue that 'Kilkenny' have already hit the ground running this month.
Under Cody's watch, Kilkenny have traditionally loved putting one over their Premier rivals. It used to be Cork but not any more. We reckon the trend is about to continue.
ODDS: Kilkenny 8/13, Draw 9/1, Tipp 13/8