Dubs move in for kil'
Daly's men believe but Cats unlikely to be tamed
SO here we are then. The public has been anticipating this moment for months, so you can just imagine the coiled-up mood in the Dublin dressing-room as they count down the minutes to throw-in.
This is a potentially seismic day in the evolution of the 'revolution', as Dublin's small-ball transformation is fondly dubbed. The big concern, though, is that it's just another day for Kilkenny -- the type from which they routinely emerge unscathed on their way to further silverware.
Can Dublin buck their 4/1 odds and send this year's hurling championship into a gloriously unexpected orbit? Yes they can. Or -- as Wexford's John Conran, the last manager to skin the Cats in Leinster combat, phrased it more eloquently to the Herald this week -- such a result is "within the bounds of possibility". No more.
Kilkenny are favourites for several good reasons. It's not just that they're All-Ireland champions; as league results illustrate, they have kicked on from last September.
They haven't lost in Leinster for eight years. History has shown that Brian Cody revels in the challenge of putting an exuberant pretender, bristling with belief, firmly in his box. Recent history too: google all those league final previews (this paper thankfully excluded!) predicting Leeside coronation against the injury-riddled Cats, then recall what happened next.
Once again, Cody has injury problems to contend with and the loss of Hurler of the Year Michael Fennelly and fellow All Star Michael Rice suggests Dublin could gain some critical traction around midfield. This being Kilkenny, though, don't be overly surprised if either Cillian Buckley or Paddy Hogan returns home with a 'Man of the Match' gong for his mantlepiece!
More ominously for the Dubs is the recovery from injury of Henry Shefflin and Richie Power: Kilkenny already boasted a formidable (and in-form) attack without the return of this decorated, deadly duo.
Dublin have quality forwards of their own -- to such an extent that Daly could afford omitting David Treacy to accommodate Ryan O'Dwyer's return from suspension -- but no team comes close to matching Kilkenny's multi-faceted array of predators.
So far, so scary for the Sky Blues -- time for some well-merited optimism then. Dublin may have been blitzed by Kilkenny both last summer and the summer before, but there is a genuine sense that this game can and even should be a whole lot closer.
Just because Kilkenny haven't lost in Leinster since 2004 doesn't negate the theory that your best opportunity to take them down is at the first hurdle. Galway threatened to do so in 2009. Against a more ruthless rival than Wexford (who threatened but failed to visit mayhem on a surprisingly shaky full-back line) Kilkenny could have been vulnerable 12 months ago.
Dublin have long ago leapfrogged Wexford in the pecking order; last year confirmed their elevation to Top-Four status and that hasn't changed yet, notwithstanding their league relegation.
Some observers have claimed Dublin weren't bothered by the league this year, focusing everything instead on June 23 (with apologies to Laois) ... we're not convinced for the simple reason that they produced several spells of spring brilliance.
Arguably their best performance came in Nowlan Park, when they plundered six goals -- and still lost. The same Kilkenny goalkeeper and five of the six backs playing today (Jackie Tyrrell for Noel Hickey being the only change) started that day, proof that even some of the greatest defenders in hurling history can be exposed if their focus is anyway awry.
Dublin's 'Cruciate Three' along with Peter Kelly didn't feature in that league goalfest. Now they are all back, allowing Anthony Daly the all-too-rare luxury of selecting from virtually a full deck. Moreover, with the return of Tomás Brady, Stephen Hiney and Conal Keaney, Dublin are one of the few counties who can dare to dream of matching Kilkenny in a physical battle.
Whether they can win the war, though, is another matter. Some day Kilkenny will be beaten; the Dublin squad clearly believes that day has arrived. It's just that we can't quite share their optimism.
ODDS: Kilkenny 2/9, Draw 12/1, Dublin 4/1
DUBLIN: G Maguire; N Corcoran, P Kelly, T Brady; S Hiney, J Boland, M Carton; J McCaffrey, S Durkin; C Keaney, D Sutcliffe, L Rushe; P Ryan, R O'Dwyer, C McCormack.
KILKENNY: D Herity; P Murphy, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, R Doyle; C Buckley, P Hogan; H Shefflin, TJ Reid, E Larkin; C Fennelly, R Power, R Hogan.