Could Ger Aylward's return swing balance of power back to Kilkenny?

By Peter McNamara

After this Saturday night’s battle in Innovate Wexford Park, the picture will become clearer.

At this moment, there is no standout All-Ireland SHC title-chasing front-runner.

Galway are the odds-compilers’ favourites. The Tribesmen are no better than odds of 16/5 to lift the Liam McCarthy Cup next September.

Furthermore, Joe Canning is the favourite to land the Hurler of the Year award now.

Still, we’ll know more late Saturday night, a lot more.

The Wexford-Kilkenny Leinster SHC semi-final takes on even greater significance in the sense either team could produce a display that pole-vaults them into first place on the grid for the outright title.

Were the Cats to rumble and land a hair-raising blow, the bookmakers will react and potentially replace Galway with Kilkenny at the summit of their ante-post markets.

Or if Davy Fitzgerald’s men pitched a performance that took our breath away, you would have to say Wexford were in deep consideration for that favourites’ spot.

Obviously, the Slaneysiders will still not be foreseen as the most likely All-Ireland champions by the layers even if they were mesmeric on Saturday.

Yet, if they do soar to a noteworthy degree and some put forward the idea Wexford were their revised choice as All-Ireland front-runners, then who could argue with them?

The point is, none of the contenders on show so far have really blown anybody away with what they have produced in their respective provincial championship outings.

In fact, Cork, if any team, have been most impressive given the opposition they faced and the supposedly lower base from which they were shooting from.

Remember, prior to the commencement of the Allianz NHL, the Leesiders were as great as 33/1 to win the All-Ireland.

However, has either Galway or Clare pulled up any trees in their matches to suggest Cork’s chances of All-Ireland success are less than theirs? Absolutely not.

Factoring in circumstances, Kieran Kingston’s side have arguably caught the eye more than even Galway and Clare.

Then again, what erodes the gloss from the Rebels’ display against the All-Ireland champions is the issues Tipp are presently dealing with among their group, between injuries and rumours of discontent.

The westerners will say their victory over Dublin was clinical but when you are expected to defeat a team that ends up playing with 14 men for the majority of the second half then that alone ensures a lid should be kept on the thoughts of their presentation.

Following Cian O’Callaghan’s 40th-minute dismissal, Micheál Donoghue’s charges were always going to pulverise the Metropolitans.

So, with that in mind, there remains a niggling doubt about their perceived role as September kingpins in-waiting.

And if Limerick had the eye in in Thurles on Sunday the Banner might be staring into an All-Ireland qualifier now.

Yes, Clare missed opportunities in the closing 10 minutes to expand their winning margin. Yet, Limerick’s wastefulness in the first-half, when the match was in the melting pot, was criminal at this level.

Therefore, none of the three teams that won matches that truly matter in terms of the All-Ireland championship thus far can state they should be ranked No 1.

Of course, Galway would have the greatest case for suggesting they should be, as league champions.

But again, given Tipp were their opponents in the decider and played as if all is not ideal in the background – we now assume this given all of what transpired since – we will reserve judgement on their All-Ireland credentials until after their meeting with either Wexford or Kilkenny in the provincial final.

Brian Cody’s outfit will be stepping out in front of a raucous, hostile atmosphere but there is a growing belief the fact we haven’t heard a murmur from their camp, in what seems like an age, could mean trouble for the hosts.

Key to the Cats’ chances of reaching another Leinster final may hinge, not necessarily on the availability and fitness of Michael Fennelly, but on the availability and fitness of Ger Aylward.

Obviously, if the Ballyhale man is sharpened for road it’ll be a bonus for Cody and Kilkenny. And the vibes are he will be as he has performed credibly in club encounters of late.

However, Aylward’s positioning in the inside line might prove to be decisive if Kilkenny can even shade the middle-third collisions.

Glenmore’s marquee operator has not been seen on the inter-county merry-go-round for too long however, if back to full fitness, could set the summer alight.

A host of commentators said during the league that Kilkenny were suffering because of having to withdraw the likes of TJ Reid and Richie Hogan from their natural offensive environment to supplement the fractions in the middle-third.

This is true, of course. However, if Aylward returns and features on Saturday night it could tilt the balance in Kilkenny’s favour.

Match sharpness may be an issue for him, particularly allowing for the pace at which the game is conducted these days.

Nevertheless, were Aylward to be firing Wexford may find it too taxing an exercise to contain him.

Cody, though, could just as easily view this fixture as coming too soon for a man that could propel them to silverware this year.

Aylward, however, notched 3-1 in a club league triumph over Tullaroan in his first match back with Glenmore on the same weekend Cork shocked Tipp in Semple Stadium.

In rude health, Aylward is a goal machine and will be the difference between Kilkenny quietening those questioning their title claims this summer and falling flat on their faces.

Quietly, Cody must be content. There is no world-beating entity in the All-Ireland honours race based on what he and we have witnessed to date.

I expected, incorrectly, Tipp were more than worthy favourites to retain the All-Ireland title.

Now their task has become extremely difficult and who best to pick up the pieces? Their old foes. Well, probably.

Unless, of course, Wexford illuminate the landscape to the point they can be viewed as legitimate All-Ireland front-runners.


Most Read in Sport