Kilkenny return to action this weekend when they take on Galway in their crunch Leinster SHC tie at Nowlan Park.
It’s been nearly a month since we last saw Brian Cody’s men in action when an inspired performance from TJ Reid set them up for a five-point win over a fancied Mattie Kenny side.
The headlines following that game centred on Dublin’s Maor Foirne, Greg Kennedy, who controversially (and strangely) intercepted a TJ Reid free during a spell in the game were Dublin were in control.
Kennedy’s actions seemed to galvanise a Kilkenny side that was struggling at the time and according to county legend, Tommy Walsh, it also ignited the Nowlan Park crowd.
“It was a home match but it didn’t really feel like it for the first 20 minutes, 25 minutes until Greg Kennedy caught that ball and the crowd then just turned it into a fortress really for the rest of the game and every decision from the referee was questioned,” Walsh said.
“Every time a Kilkenny guy did something with the ball the place just lifted, the stadium lifted and then we got back into the game.”
Walsh claims to never have seen a Kilkenny crowd like it before and credits the boisterous support as a massive part of why they beat Dublin that day.
“Well I think it definitely had a massive effect on the Kilkenny performance because it just connected the crowd with the game.
“Dublin had such a good start and you often find that when the away team starts well it can be quite hurtful to the home support with regards it keeps them quiet and they are just looking for something to ignite them and I thought that ignited them because I’ve never been in a Kilkenny stadium that was so boisterous where the whole crowd got into the game.
“It definitely had a massive effect on Kilkenny. I’m not saying they wouldn’t have won it but it was definitely a massive part of it.”
It feels like we’ve lost touch with Brian Cody’s side since that match. They swatted aside the challenge of Carlow a week later, but without TV coverage it’s hard to get excited. Meanwhile, fans have been treated to game after game in the Munster round-robin series.
Walsh feels that a month out of the spotlight will have done this Kilkenny side the world of good in terms of getting the team to gel ahead of the bigger tests ahead.
“The last month will be fierce important for Kilkenny with getting to know each other’s styles. The most important thing is learning to play the ball through the lines because that’s definitely a part that most teams need now. You don’t just lump it forward, you might have to play it backwards.
“It wouldn’t normally have been seen as a part of the Kilkenny style but their definitely getting that bit better and as we saw against Dublin, they would have had to play it around, across the field, hitting it backwards. If that had happened two years ago, the crowd would be getting on their back, nowadays they don’t have to because they know you have to play it that way.”
With regards to the challenge that lies ahead of them this Sunday, Walsh is excited by the prospect of Galway coming to town but also apprehensive as the Tribesmen traditionally never fear Kilkenny as others do.
However, he’s hugely excited about this current crop of Kilkenny stars and looking forward to what is their biggest game of the season so far.
“There’s huge optimism this year with Kilkenny. I think the Ballyhale run in the All-Ireland Championship has given everyone hope because Kilkenny performed particularly well within the league and then you’d all these guys to come back in such a rich vein of form and winning the All-Ireland Club final and playing such a great brand of hurling so there is huge optimism coming in.
“But I think this is probably the most important game this season for us because if we can beat Galway this weekend we’re guaranteed to go through in the top three and possibly even into a Leinster final and that would just give everyone an extra month together and at least probably two more big matches.
“I think it’s absolutely massive but the thing about Galway is, going back to 2001 when they beat us in the All-Ireland semi-final they’re never afraid of Kilkenny.
“So, all the talk this week is about Kilkenny but Galway never fear going up to Kilkenny and the thing about Galway I suppose this weekend is they’re probably not coming into it in great form so they’ll probably need a good kick start. It’s exciting and everyone is looking forward to it.”
It’s been nearly three years since Kilkenny last lifted the Bob O’Keeffe Cup and nearly four since their last All-Ireland success.
For most counties, this would be perfectly acceptable. But for Kilkenny, it’s verging on a drought. At this stage, Walsh says the Kilkenny fans will take any trophy they can get their hands on.
“We haven’t been All-Ireland champions since 2015; we were Leinster champions in 2016. You’d take anything! A Walsh Cup, a league, anything! As a supporter – and that’s what I am now – I’d love to see Kilkenny in a Leinster final. I’d love to see someone going up lifting the Bob O’Keeffe Cup.
“As they say, what’s seldom is wonderful and we haven’t been there in quite a bit. The hunger is massively back for winning a Leinster title. We were winning it so often that you can take it for granted. You try your best not to and we always treat it with respect but definitely that inner hunger which builds up inside you may not have been there to lift the Bob O’Keeffe (in years gone by) but it’s back big time.
“You’d love to see Kilkenny winning it because it would be another confidence booster for this young team – ‘We can do it on the biggest stage against the best in Croke Park’.”