herald

Thursday 27 November 2014

Kilkenny in class all of their own

BRIAN CODY would be a millionaire several times over if he received a euro for every time he was asked what drives on his team of thoroughbred champions.

And every time he is asked whether three-in-a-row or the creation of some other historical milestone explains their ravenous approach, Cody politely replies along the lines that it's all about winning the next All-Ireland. That, he maintains, is more than enough motivation for any inter-county hurler.

Maybe so, but that won't stop the rest of us from wondering how and why his Kilkenny team of all talents are now in a different parish -- make that a neighbouring galaxy -- to the rest of hurling's mere mortals.

Words like "awesome" and "great" are routinely abused in the vernacular of sports journalism -- but can you think of a more apposite word than awesome to describe Kilkenny's performance in yesterday's All-Ireland final?

And if this team doesn't qualify as great, then Martin Luther King was a second-rate preacher and Pele had only one foot and we'll reserve judgement on Usain Bolt until he breaks the nine-second barrier.

This observer isn't sufficiently decrepit (thank God) to start comparing the current Kilkenny side to some of the greats of yesteryear -- be it their Black-and-Amber predecessors from the distant past or even the all-conquering Cork of the '40s or '70s or the Tipp team of the early '60s.

But we know this: the hurlers of today are fitter, faster and probably stronger than ever before ... and the Kilkenny of today are light years ahead of all their pretenders.

EASIER

All of this won't have made it any easier for Waterford management, players or shellshocked supporters as they awoke this morning, doubtless to pounding hangovers and the morbid realisation that Sunday, September 7, 2008 was not a bad dream.

In a word, Waterford were woeful -- there is no other way to describe the poverty of their performance. It was 45 years since the county last adorned the All-Ireland final stage and it will surely take several more years to get over yesterday's trauma.

Davy Fitzgerald didn't cover himself in glory either, by failing to make a single substitution even as his labouring team slipped six points, then 12, and finally 17 points adrift of the unstoppable Cats before we had even reached half-time.

But to concentrate too heavily on Waterford woes is to underplay the all-consuming brilliance of their rivals. Yesterday may have lacked the nerve-tingling intensity that we all love to see on All-Ireland day but the reality is that, even if the Déise had brought their 'A' game to Croke Park, they wouldn't have lived with the champions.

The only difference is they may have lost by 12 points, not 23.

Cody afterwards agreed it was Kilkenny's best performance during his ten-year reign, and it was impossible to argue. And no, he didn't declare himself the greatest manager of all time -- he can leave that to everyone else!

Kilkenny have now become the first county to win six All-Ireland hurling titles in the same decade, and Cody's fingerprints have been all over each one of them. You'll get very short odds on seventh heaven next September -- either that, or you've stumbled upon a very naive bookie on the verge of bankruptcy.

And on the record-shattering goes. Kilkenny's first three-in-a-row since 1913 (and even that one came with a committee room caveat).

The first hat-trick since Cork in '78. The highest All-Ireland-winning margin since 1943. And title number 31, finally placing Kilkenny in solitary pole position in the pantheon of All-Ireland winners.

Here's another stat to chew over while you consider when -- or rather if -- this juggernaut will be stopped. Kilkenny won their four SHC encounters this summer by a combined margin of 69 points, averaging out at over 17 points per game.

Cork were the only side to run them close, and by that we mean nine points. There has been much soul-searching at HDC level and beyond over the urgent need to revitalise the Leinster championship -- but while Kilkenny demolished Offaly and Wexford by 37 points in total, Munster opposition fared almost as badly this summer with Cork and Waterford losing by 32 points.

FARED

Would Munster champions Tipperary have fared any better if they'd won their semi-final? Perhaps; but they wouldn't have lived with Kilkenny either. Not on this form.

The Marble City marauders were so accomplished in virtually every facet that it's almost impossible to know where to start. But we'll begin with a defence that prevented any Déise score from play until the 46th minute when John Mullane -- the only Waterford forward to preserve his reputation amid the massacre -- landed the first of his three points.

Late in the first half, though, Mullane had been sublimely thieved of possession by Michael Kavanagh. And by that stage, Noel Hickey had already blocked down two attempted points from Eoin Kelly. These little microcosm moments revealed a much bigger picture of Waterford's subjugation up front.

With the Kilkenny half-backs lording Waterford's puckout and their midfield duo of 'Cha' Fitzpatrick and Derek Lyng in total control, the stage was set for Kilkenny's front six to make hay. They didn't disappoint, and again the stats don't lie. All bar six points of Kilkenny's 3-30 haul came from open play. They only hit two wides in total -- Martin Comerford in first half injury time and then Fitzpatrick late in the game.

Their shooting was staggeringly pinpoint, even allowing for some alarmingly lax marking by Waterford's rattled defence.

It seems almost perverse to pick a 'Man of the Match', given that the very essence of Kilkenny under Cody is their team ethos; and this was reflected in the spread of superb performers all over the field.

Gurus of defence might well plump for Hickey (who has probably nailed the No 3 All Star position despite playing just twice all season), or JJ Delaney, or the irrepressible Tommy Walsh (although his claims are blighted by the fact he was slightly fortunate to avoid a second yellow).

But the match-winners were in attack, and it's a desperately close call between Eoin Larkin and Eddie Brennan. Larkin now looks the obvious choice for Hurler of the Year after the latest towering display of a superlative summer; but Brennan was the man who broke the last shred of Déise resistance with his two-goal salvo in the space of barely 60 seconds, at a time when Waterford fans were already fearing the worst.

By half-time it was game over and no amount of second half tinkering by Davy Fitz could repel the Black-and-Amber tide.

Yet if you wanted to encapsulate the full extent of Waterford's disarray, then it could be spied in the fact that Eoin Kelly and Eoin McGrath began the second half at midfield with Ken McGrath now switched to centre-forward.

Their game-plan, and with that their dreams, had long since unravelled.

Whatever Cody might say about three-in-a-row, it's clear that this was one factor behind yesterday's masterclass.

As Fitzpatrick said in his speech from the podium: "It's been almost a century since we last achieved this feat. In 1934 it couldn't be done. In 1976 it couldn't be done. In 1984 it couldn't be done. In 1994 it couldn't be done in. In 2004 it couldn't be done. In 2008 it has been done."

And now for four ...

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