BY NIALL SHERRY
Cats seek to conquer Cusack Park
Senior Hurling Championship 2022
Westmeath vs Kilkenny
Saturday April 16th 6pm
TEG Cusack Park, Mullingar
And just like that…….Championship hurling has arrived.
The beauty of a shortened, condensed season is that there’s no time wasted.
The Allianz League is now firmly in the rearview mirror, and attention is now focused on the Leinster Hurling Championship 2022.
First up for the black & amber is the challenge of Westmeath, on their own patch tomorrow evening.
The Lake County have achieved their number one aim this season – a speedy return to division one of the Allianz League. They will see this as vital as the county seeks to establish themselves as a genuine hurling county.
Manager Joe Fortune assumed the reigns of the senior hurlers back in September and has managed to get the team back on track, following Dubliner Shane O’Brien’s resignation a couple of months earlier. The Enniscorthy native has built up an impressive coaching CV over the last 15 years and has secured provincial honours for Dublin at both minor and U21 level. Possibly one of his biggest achievements came at club level, when he led Ballyboden St Enda’s to the Dublin senior title in 2018, before losing the provincial final to our own Shamrocks Ballyhale.
Following a winless 2021 league campaign, Fortune has overseen Westmeath’s return to the top table at the first time of asking, following a decent league run which culminated with a resounding division 2A final win over Down at Semple Stadium.
That league final victory won’t have gone unnoticed by Brian Cody and his backroom team. The star of the show that day was former Galway hurler, Davy Glennon. An All-Ireland winner with the Tribesmen in 2017, Glennon has added real quality to the Lake County since his switch in 2020. The Mullagh club man hit 3-1 in his sides league final annihilation of the Mourne men. Glennon was also instrumental in Westmeath’s Joe McDonagh Cup triumph last year, notching 0-5 in the final and earning a place on the team of the tournament.
Glennon has plenty of support in the Westmeath attack, especially in the shape of Raharney’s Killian Doyle, who hit 1-11 in the title win earlier this month. Doyle is deadly accurate from the placed ball and will punish any indiscretions from the opposition.
In their five groups games in Division 2, Fortune’s team won 3 and lost 2 of their five group games. Defeats to Carlow and Down were unexpected, but the maroon’s secured wins over Kerry, Meath and Kildare, before defeating the kingdom again in a league semi-final. This set up a second meeting with Ronan Sheehan’s Down, who had actually finished top of the league table, in the title decider staged in Thurles.
In the games lost, Westmeath struggled for goals, whereas in their victories, goals came a little easier. Five in the league final came on the back of 4 against Meath and 7 over two games against Kerry. There are certainly goals in the team, and the Cats will need to be on their guard when they take to the Cusack Park pitch.
In defence, Tommy Doyle has been deployed at the edge of the square to good effect, and they will need a good shift from him and the likes of Darragh Egerton, Jack Galvin and Robbie Greville if they are to remain competitive against their more illustrious opponents tomorrow evening. Last year’s captain Cormac Boyle and Kevin Regan have been motoring along nicely in midfield, and will be keen to try and at least break even in the engine room battle.
Along with Glennon and captain Killian Doyle, Joey Boyle has looked sharp during the league, while the vastly experienced Derek McNicholas, now in his 19th season with the Lake County, will look to shake-up the Kilkenny defence. As mentioned previously, the free-taking of Killian Doyle will be crucial to Westmeath’s championship campaign, and the Noresiders will be keen not to give Clare whistler Rory McGann too many opportunities for captain Doyle to raise white flags from the placed ball.
So, what of our boys? Well, the league campaign had a little bit of everything across the games. The highlight of the Allianz fixtures was undoubtably an impressive win over eventual league winners Waterford. The Deise already had one foot in the final before they rocked up to Nowlan Park, but this win saw the Cats play their best hurling of the year to date.
The defeat in Thurles to Colm Bonnar’s Tipperary was unlucky, a share of the spoils might have been the fairer result. A very entertaining trip to Chadwick’s Wexford Park saw a great game for the neutral.
Brian Cody should have a much better idea of his best starting XV. I don’ think we will see the full line-up tomorrow. TJ Reid, I would imagine will continue his rehab and perhaps make an appearance over the May bank holiday when Kilkenny travel to take on one of their most famous sons, Henry Shefflin and his Galway charges. One would imagine that the Noresiders will have too much in an attacking sense for most opponents in the group stages, and this should allow TJ to come back when ready, rather than be rushed be ahead of schedule.
Twice young hurler of the year, Eoin Cody will look to kick on again this year, following heartbreak at All-Ireland club and Fitzgibbon cup level earlier this year. The Ballyhale attacker is an absolute joy to watch, and he along with Billy Ryan will be asked to provide the spark for the Cats attacking unit. Mossy Keoghan has provided a real focal point for Kilkenny this season and has a keen eye for goal.
The managers decision to move accomplished No.6, Padraig Walsh to the centre-forward position has proved somewhat of a master-stroke. Some of his shooting has been sensational so far this season. Will the Tullaroan man continue in this attacking role through the championship? It would take a brave man to move the classy Walsh now.
Don’t forget, last season’s captain, Adrian Mullen will still have big role to play across the championship campaign. Mullen will get through mountains of work, and won’t be afraid to mix it when the going gets tough.
It will be interesting to see where captain Richie Reid slots in to Mr. Cody’s team. Could it be a role in the engine room for the Ballyhale maestro? If the half-back line is made up of Mikey Carey, Paddy Deegan and David Blanchfield, midfield could well be Richie’s home.
The vision and quality of passing that Mikey Carey has shown, could be a useful tool for this Kilkenny side. Add the attacking threat and scoring ability from the other flank by David Blanchfield, and you can see why the Marble County faithful are quietly optimistic about the next few years. However, when you line-out in the black & amber, it’s about now, not the future.
Glenmore’s All-Star goalkeeper Eoin Murphy will have the in-form Huw Lawlor and Mikey Butler in front of him, and this will be vital in the Cats defensive structure. The chemistry between the O’Loughlin’s duo is clear for all to see. Lawlor is rightly regarded as one of the best, if not the best No.3’s in the business and having the tenacious Butler beside him can only be good for the Kilkenny rearguard.
A good start to the championship is key in helping drive the team forward and build momentum. The Kilkenny supporters will demand nothing less than a victory tomorrow evening.
>> SHERRY SAYS………..
We’ll be right back, after the break. Thankfully it’s been a short break. Championship hurling is back tomorrow night. We hit the road to Mullingar to take on the Lake County. Joe Fortune is a bright young coach, who has been building a reputation over the last number of years across many teams.
Westmeath will be back in division one next season. This will help their development as they seek to establish a foothold with the ‘big boys’.
Kilkenny will have planned for tomorrow’s game and be thoroughly prepared for the challenge that they will face at Cusack Park. Brian Cody has been round long enough to recognise potential banana skins.
Some media pundits have been praising this version of Cody’s Cats, and praising his unearthing of potential gems like Butler, Blanchfield and Carey. There’s no doubting the extra quality that these men bring to the Kilkenny squad, and hopefully we will get to see this over the next couple of months.
Cody will be keen to secure an opening day win ahead of the first home championship fixture against Cheddar’s Laois next week.
I hope the men in stripes make an early championship statement in Mullingar. Leinster Championship… let’s be havin’ you!
Be like Cody.
You are Kilkenny senior hurling manager. Championship is starting. You can only pick 15 players.
Who makes the cut? Is there a Mooncoin man or two in your team? Would Ronan Corcoran claim a jersey? You decide!!
Email your starting 15 to me –