BY NIALL SHERRY
Lyng’s first Leinster campaign starts at home
2023 Leinster Senior Hurling Championship
Kilkenny vs Westmeath
UPMC Nowlan Park, Saturday 6pm
Kilkenny begin the defence of their provincial crown at home to Westmeath tomorrow evening as the panel looks to put the recent league final defeat to Limerick to bed. On paper, it’s a game that the Cats should win comfortably, but you can guarantee that manager Derek Lyng will not allow for any complacency to have crept into his charges over the past 7 days. The Emerald’s club man will be determined to secure a 75th Bob O’Keefe cup for his county and in doing so, make it four-in-a-row.
Since losing the Allianz league decider to the Treaty, the championship preparation will have ramped up, and there will be many players pushing for inclusion in Lyng’s first Leinster championship game. The last game saw Adrian Mullen return to the black and amber jersey and those will have been vital minutes to get into the legs of the Shamrocks Ballyhale man. The former county captain will be a vital cog if the Kilkenny machine is to match last season’s endeavors and reach the All-Ireland final. Adrian hit some wonderful scores in the Limerick defeat and has been in inspirational form over the last 12 months.
Another Shamrocks player had a watching brief in the league final, the legendary TJ Reid. The game tomorrow could be the perfect run-out for TJ to shake off any rust in the legs and given that the curtain raiser to the Westmeath match sees our U20’s in action against Dublin in round 3 of the Oneills.com championship, Billy Drennan may be involved with Mark Dowling’s panel.
Drennan, who finished his first Allianz National Hurling League campaign as the Division 1’s top scorer, will be in demand as his tally of 2-70 has announced his arrival on the senior stage. In the U20’s recent high scoring win over Galway, the Galmoy man hit an impressive 2-12 as his team notched 5-20 in the round two win. Another couple of players who saw minutes during the league, Dicksboro’s Timmy Clifford and Tullaroan’s Gearoid Dunne have also been in U20’s action, and again both will be hoping for more time with the seniors as the season progresses.
In defence, it will be interesting to see if The Sash’s Tommy Walsh will be deployed at full-back, or if a return to the corner may be on the cards. I for one firmly believe that O’Loughlin’s Huw Lawlor is one of the country’s finest No.3’s and would certainly like to see him on the edge of the square as summer approaches. Should T. Walsh return to a corner berth, P. Walsh may find himself operating at half-back, something that wouldn’t detract from the latter’s ability to contribute positively for this Cats team. It was good to see Richie Reid back in swashbuckling action in the defeat to Limerick, and he will almost certainly be a permanent fixture at 5,6 or 7. Like Padraig Walsh, Richie can take a long-range score, a quality which comes in handy when the opposition sit back and flood the scoring zone
In midfield, Conor Fogarty has put in some consistent quality displays recently and on current form, should be confident of retaining one of the jerseys in the engine room. His partner could be any one of several players, Adrian or Paddy Mullen, Glenmore’s Alan Murphy, O’Loughlin’s Paddy Deegan or possibly Padraig Walsh. As usual, winning the middle third battle will be crucial in providing the platform for the ‘headline grabbers’ in the attacking unit to do their thing.
Captain Eoin Cody will hope to lead the line and get a few scores, while Billy Ryan and Mossy Keoghan will know that there are players itching to play in the Kilkenny attacking unit. As mentioned earlier, Saturday could see minutes for TJ Reid. Manager Lyng might use this opening round game to allow Reid to settle back into county action, knowing that having TJ sharp for later in the provincial campaign and the All-Ireland series will be beneficial to the Cats team.
Perhaps one of the ‘unsung heroes’ of Kilkenny 2023 has been John Donnelly. The big Thomastown man has been getting through a mountain of work all over the pitch, and while it may not grab the headlines, Donnelly’s selfless work is vital in helping Derek Lyng’s team function.
Tomorrow’s opponents Westmeath will arrive at UPMC Nowlan Park having secured their Division 1 status, courtesy of a relegation play-off victory over Willie Maher’s Laois at FBD Semple Stadium last month. That win consigned Laois to division two and the Joe McDonagh Cup. Despite surviving, it was a disappointing league campaign for Joe Fortune’s maroon men, but they managed to get over the line in the fixture that mattered most.
Goals were key in securing The Lake County’s topflight status, and they hit three majors in the win over Laois. Niall O’Brien hit one against The O’Moore County and will be a key figure during his sides provincial campaign. The Castletown Geoghegan man has been a regular fixture in the Westmeath side for a number of years now and is in the top 5 all-time top scorers for his county this millennium. O’Brien is in good company in this list. The veteran Derek McNicholas, free-taker Killian Doyle and his Raharney clubmates Robbie Greville, Ciaran Doyle and Joey Boyle all feature and will be prominent if Wexford native Fortune is to revive his team’s fortunes for the remainder of their hurling season.
There had been some discontent amongst a section of the Westmeath support, mostly online, and manager Fortune addressed this recently in an interview with The Westmeath Independent:
“I’ve read stuff where people gave out about Derek McNicholas coming back in. Derek took time off after the birth of his son,” he explained
“I brought in young Peter Clarke for his first game at that level. We don’t have a conveyor belt like other counties. The likes of Limerick put a massive amount of money into underage. You can bring the best strength and conditioning guy in Ireland in when a guy is 22, but your time has gone.
“I read last week that we didn’t look as fit as last year, but would you look fit when facing Limerick or Galway whose aim is to win the All-Ireland? It hurts me to see what some people write about this solid group of men that we have.”
Veteran McNicholas came off the bench to great effect in the play-off win over Laois. The Lough Lene Gaels sharpshooter scored a brace of points before the long whistle to help his side get the important win. There’s no doubt that the man who made his senior debut in 2004 can still produce cameos like he did recently to benefit his beloved Westmeath.
Killian Doyle’s accuracy from the placed ball will be vital in keeping the scoreboard ticking over for the Lake County and the Raharney man will look to punish any indiscretions by the Kilkenny players. The other Doyle, Ciaran hit 0-4 last time out, while his clubmates Joey Boyle and sub Eoin Keyes weighed in with 2-3 between them. Keyes is a good prospect and will be keen to establish himself during this provincial campaign.
Westmeath will roll into town tomorrow, knowing that not many give them any chance of getting anything from the opening round game against their more illustrious opponents, and whatever XV Derek Lyng starts with will be acutely aware of the potential banana skin that the men in maroon pose.