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Monday 5 December 2016

New characters fill the 48-medal void

Kieran Joyce, Kilkenny
Kieran Joyce, Kilkenny

Last Sunday may not rank as Kilkenny's most glorious All-Ireland final performance but it will rank among Brian Cody's standout September achievements ... how he took a dressing-room that had lost 48 All-Ireland medals and led them back up the steps of the Hogan Stand.

Forty-eight - it bears repeating. Even if JJ Delaney was the only guaranteed starter to hang up his hurl, his departure along with two of the greatest ever (Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh), allied to the retirements of Brian Hogan, Aidan Fogarty and David Herity, left Kilkenny lighter on options than ever before.

And then, to compound matters, Cody had to juggle with long-term and short-term injury setbacks throughout the season. Plus a half-time deficit of three points in the final, having been largely outfought and outhurled by Galway.

"A lot of massive characters left last year, characters that you'll never replace," admits centre-back Kieran Joyce.

"New characters come in - it's up to a lot of us to step up.

"We've a couple of massive leaders there: TJ (Reid) was immense again for us. Richie Hogan was immense.

"Great players left but there's great players coming again. It's a cycle and you try and do as much as you can while you're there and make every opportunity count."

What Sunday's frenetic decider reaffirmed is that, even if legends come and go, the same underlying principles remain. In Cody's world, hooks and blocks and selfless commitment to the collective are king. And that's a key reason why a team in supposed transition are now two-in-a-row champions.

"We'll enjoy this one. We'll obviously regather next year," says Joyce. "There's a couple of young players there and it's a great experience to be out there - a huge Galway crowd, I'd say they outnumbered us three to one at some stage. You build on that, you use all that against you.

"It came down to winning dirty ball. In the first half Galway won a lot of dirty ball but, in the second half, we put our foot to the metal and won the dirty ball.

"Once you start feeding our forwards with any sort of ball, they'll do damage ... you give them half a sniff of a chance and they'll take it."

Sweeter

Even though Joyce was named 'Man of the Match' after last year's All-Ireland final replay, this year probably has a sweeter taste. He sat out most of the 2014 campaign only to be recalled for the Tipperary replay, whereas the 28-year-old Rower Inistioge man was a No 6 mainstay for all four outings this summer.

"Competition is fierce inside, it always will be," he maintains. "I'm over the moon again. Any opportunity you get, 70 minutes to win an All-Ireland, you have to take that opportunity because they don't come round too often.

"I know Kilkenny have been blessed the last number of years. But look, you don't know what will happen next year - you take these opportunities when they come."

Richie Power's case study underlines that point: last Sunday's ten-minute cameo was his first appearance of an injury-blighted year.

"He's the hardest man there. He's the first man in the gym, he's the last one leaving every time," Joyce reveals.

"He put in a lot of hard work and I'm delighted to see him come back. He'll be gunning next year and that's the sort of character he is."

And the sort of characters they are.

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