BY NIALL SHERRY
ALL PIX DANNY LAHART
Allianz League crucial to championship hopes
Allianz Hurling League
Division 1 Group B
Kilkenny vs Antrim
UPMC Nowlan Park, Sunday February 6th
Having been at the helm since the back end of the 1998 season, Brian Cody is under no illusions as to the importance of this year’s Allianz League campaign.
With the 2022 season being somewhat condensed, the James Stephens clubman will know that early momentum will be vital as Kilkenny seek to solve the seemingly impossible puzzle that is Limerick.
The early rounds of the league will see the cats minus the Shamrocks Ballyhale contingent, as TJ Reid & Co. Seek another All-Ireland club title when they face-off against neighbours Ballygunner next weekend.
The extended season of James O’Connor’s team, along with Mooncoin & Glenmore has allowed Cody to give opportunities to a number of players in their two Walsh Cup games in January, against Laois and Wexford. The experienced bainisteoir has been casting his eye over the ‘trialists’ as he and his backroom team seek to trim the panel to a more manageable number.
First up for the black and amber will be Darren Gleeson’s Antrim. The Tipperary native committed to a further year with the Saffron’s in August last year, despite mounting speculation that the long commute may bring his tenure to an end. While they endured a frustrating Walsh Cup campaign, Gleeson knows that it’s the National League that will lay the foundations for his side’s championship exploits later this year. Antrim suffered a trio of defeats in the pre-season competition. Mattie Kenny’s Dublin, Michael Fennelly’s Offaly and Henry Shefflin’s Galway all recorded victories over Gleeson’s charges.
First up from Antrim, was a 9-point defeat in Parnell Park. Deaglan Murphy hit the nest that day for a major, but Dublin pulled away in the second half to secure the win. A trip to Tullamore was next up, and their failure to take a couple of clear goal chances, proved to be their downfall, along with the sending off of Gerard Walsh. 11-points down at the short whistle, Gleeson’s side showed more fight in the second half, but went on to lose by six. The louth Centre of Excellence at Darver was the venue for their final match against Henry’s tribesmen. A much better showing from Antrim saw them lose by 6 again, but they created a number of goal chances, but only managed to take one.
During their three games, the Saffron’s used some 30 players, and like the cats, they will have spent the past week finalising their squad for the league.
Portroe clubman Gleeson will look to the likes of Ciaran Clarke and Neil McManus to keep the score board ticking over, while the potential that that Seaan Elliott has shown, could see him get many minutes during the up-coming league campaign.
Kilkenny, on the other hand had a workman-like win over ‘Cheddar’s’ Laois, before they shared the spoils with Darragh Eagan’s Wexford, following a spirited comeback. One would think that the XV selected to line out against the Glensmen, will be a concoction of both the Walsh Cup line-ups.
In the 6-point win over Laois, Lisdowney’s Liam Dunphy got the nod as net minder and kept a clean sheet on his debut. Last season’s understudy to All-Star Eoin Murphy, St Lachtains Darren Brennan, was between the sticks for the trip to Chadwick’s Wexford Park, and one would expect Murphy & Brennan to share the duties in the opening rounds. Brian Cody only retained two starters from the win over Laois for the match against neighbours Wexford, Mikey Butler and Chris Bolger being the chosen ones.
Clara attacker, Bolger, has looked very lively, and his Walsh Cup displays, might just see him retained for the Allianz League. Another talented player to make his senior inter-county debut Laois, was Tullaroan sharp shooter, Shane Walsh. Padraig & Tommy’s brother settled in nicely and was very accurate from the placed ball, hitting six frees and a ‘65, along with a couple from play.
Other players to impress against the O’Moore County were Graigue-Ballycallan’s Colm Prenderville, The Village’s Luke Scanlon and Windgap’s Emmett Landy, who finished the day with 1-2. A notable mention to Substitute Robbie Buckley, who looked extremely menacing when introduced. In defence, O’Loughlin’s scoring wing-back, Conor Heary played at No.6, and as expected, also got on the score board.
In the entertaining draw with the Yellowbellies, most scores came from Eoin O’Shea, Cian Kenny, John Donnelly, James Bergin, Mossy and Chris Bolger. Substitute, Prenderville also found the net in the helter skelter tussle. Conahy Shamrocks Bergin, was on placed ball duty and hit a magnificent 7, before Cian Kenny took the reins. Walter Walsh also had a scoring return when sprung from the bench.
Speaking to the assembled media after the draw at Wexford Park, Cody was clear in his assessment of the upcoming league campaign:
“We need the competitive games that we are about to get in the League,” added Cody.
“These games and the League are ultimately about preparation for the Championship, but the League is hugely important in itself, so we’ll be treating it with the utmost respect as always.
“We’re in serious training now and like all teams we have a very big training panel with players being given opportunities.
“They know that we will eventually have to cut the panel because we can’t carry huge numbers throughout the year.
“Competition for places is strong and they realise that the battle for places is fierce.”
At the time of writing, the Kilkenny line-up hasn’t been released, but whatever XV are selected to start, will be ready for the battle that Antrim will try to make Sunday’s contest. On their last visit to Norseide, the Saffrons put on a decent showing, when they went down 1-28 to 3-15 at UPMC Nowlan Park.
Antrim will battle, but I expect Kilkenny to show the necessary bottle to make the perfect start to their league campaign.
>> SHERRY SAYS………..
Larger numbers of spectators in grounds, changing rooms in use, no more dreaded water breaks. Yes folks – the return of a proper Allianz National League.
As we (hopefully) begin to learn to live with coronavirus, the sense of normality is slowly beginning to emerge.
Note for your diaries…. The All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final is penciled in for July 17th. Yes, that’s right, July 17th.
Before I get accused of ‘jumping the gun’, the above date is purely for your reference. Ahead of this date, you can also pencil in the weekend of April 2nd/3rd – that’s the date for the Allianz Hurling League Final. We might as well get the other big dates out of the way too. May 1st, Bank Holiday weekend. Shefflin vs Cody. All things being equal, Leinster Senior Hurling Final, June 4th.
So, Antrim come to town on Sunday. Darren Gleeson will no doubt have his charges well pumped up for this opening weekend clash. As a hurler, if you can’t raise your game for a n outing in UPMC Nowlan Park against Brian Cody’s Kilkenny, well you’d better take up chess!
Kilkenny will need to earn the right to play their brand of hurling first. Expect some big hits and clashes early doors. Getting off to a good fast start, should allow the black and amber to dominate and enjoy the first REAL taste of competitive action this season.
Really looking forward to seeing some of the ‘new kids on the block’ in action again during this league campaign. It must be comforting to know that you still have the likes of TJ, Eoin Cody, Richie Reid, Adrian Mullen, Paddy Deegan etc. etc. to come back into the fold.
Let the games begin!