Nicky English: Kilkenny’s firepower still looks formidable

Brian Cody’s champions to survive the test posed by rejuvenated Galway

Kilkenny v Galway

What strikes me about Galway so far is that they have a method to their play, are getting quality ball into the full forwards and have consistency in selection. Although the semi-final was disappointing, in the early stages Laois put them under pressure and Galway actually had to work it out on the field with good leadership from the full-back line where if you can argue John Hanbury has been untested, Pádraig Mannion has been outstanding – really impressive.

They're strong up the middle and adept in the use of their bench. They haven't had this type of coherence for the past couple of years and a performance like the 2012 Leinster final wouldn't surprise me as much as it did three years ago.

They've more variety in their play. Last year was all about trying to play Jonathan Glynn and Joe Canning in with high ball but it's a more settled pattern now with ball winners down the centre and Jason Flynn and Cathal Mannion looking very dangerous in the corners of the attack. Players appear to me to understand their role in the team better than in the past couple of years.

They're also getting much more out of Joe Canning. Maybe taking him off the frees and putting him under a bit more pressure has worked. He's definitely capable of the sort of step-up Galway will need at Croke Park. That will be a huge task for Kilkenny full back Joey Holden, who came through with flying colours against Wexford's Conor McDonald but it was also fairly obvious that this wasn't the McDonald of 2014.


Accepting how poor Wexford were and allowing for how well Galway and Tipperary came through their provincial semi-finals, Kilkenny were still very, very impressive. Ger Aylward came in for his first championship start and scored 3-5.

But the big question for them was never the loss of players – JJ Delaney was the only first-choice last year. It was how they would cope with the leadership exodus from the dressing-room.

It was important that Michael Fennelly was able to play, as he's such a big cog in the machine. When you look at the now routine levels of excellence from Richie Hogan and TJ Reid it's clear a new generation has stepped forward and this was as impressive an early-season performance as we've seen from Kilkenny in years.

I probably expected more of Wexford but their mediocre league is looking more significant at this stage. Kilkenny’s display was all the more striking because they had to find form out of competition because they weren’t in the later stages of the league due to injuries and club commitments.

I’ll be surprised if Kilkenny sleepwalk into this like they did three years ago but the issue will be the defence. My instinct is that while they looked very comfortable against Wexford that was in Nowlan Park in a game that was over early.

Croke Park is the real test because of the space and the excellent movement of a Galway attack, which combines that mobility with serious physicality and higher fitness levels.

However, Kilkenny can afford some slippage at the back because their firepower is formidable and I think the Wexford performance will prove a genuine indication of where they are.

Wexford v Cork

In 2014 both of these teams had memorable championships in the early part of the summer only for their seasons to end disappointingly and neither appears to have recovered over the past 12 months.

If Wexford have anything left of that form, this is the game to kick-start their season as Cork look very vulnerable. Against Waterford they were very nervy at the back and unable to deal with Maurice Shanahan despite the extra numbers they had.

They simply haven’t recovered from the Tipperary beating in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. Cormac Murphy is the only new face this year so they’re dealing with the same cast that failed spectacularly in Croke Park in 2014.

Cork have a great championship record against Wexford but it's a long trip there and it's unlikely there'll be many supporters making the journey. This should be a perfect scenario for the home team but they also don't look like they've recovered from their championship mauling against Limerick last year.

A bad league – I was at their match against Waterford and they offered very little – has led into a bad championship. Their touch has been ponderous and looking at the forwards in Kilkenny, they looked as if they had got very strong but also over-bulked. Their hurling was really, really poor.

The early chances they got were lost. Ian Byrne’s fumble of what was a goal chance set a tone and from there on they never looked likely to challenge.

These are two very damaged teams and whereas it would ignite Wexford’s season if they won this, there hasn’t been anything to suggest that they can access the form of 2014. Maybe the crowd can inspire a reaction if they’re not too demoralised after Nowlan Park but, in fairness, Wexford supporters have a high pain threshold and will probably come out this evening.

When the teams met in the league quarter-final at Páirc Uí Rinn Wexford had the chances to win but couldn’t take them and so Cork just fell over the line. If Wexford get up a head of steam this could be a lonely place for Cork and I wouldn’t rule out a shock here.

Other qualifiers

In the other matches it’s virtually impossible to see Westmeath or Offaly getting close to Limerick or Clare even if Limerick were fairly punctured by Tipperary and a long way off their form of last year.

I was really disappointed by Laois in Tullamore. I thought they had looked promising early in the year but they fell away badly against Galway. The scale of that beating should be very hard to turn around in a couple of weeks but there were signs last week in a well-contested challenge with Tipperary that the wheels haven’t entirely come off Cheddar Plunkett’s team.

Bearing that in mind and also that Dublin are pretty damaged themselves, this may be a tougher fixture than originally perceived but I think Dublin too have the potential to improve on their defeat by Galway and get back on track in the qualifiers.

Nicky English

Nicky English

Nicky English, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a former Tipperary hurler and manager