There's life in cats yet
AT this very juncture 12 months ago, gearing up for their latest Leinster campaign, Kilkenny were the Invincibles of hurling. Unbeaten in summer combat since 2005, they were being beckoned towards the five-in-a-row pantheon.
All changed, changed utterly … their ‘Drive for Five’ skidded onto the hard shoulder of September defeat, and that Tipp-inflicted trauma has been followed by successive hints that the greatest team ever has grown weary, injury-prone, occasionally narky, and generally vulnerable.
How else do you account for their 12-point trimming by Dublin in the Allianz League final?
This week, the naysayers were given further omens that the end is nigh for Brian Cody’s immortals. For the second year running, Kilkenny crashed out of the Leinster U21 championship without reaching the final – pipped by their semi-final hosts, Wexford.
That was Tuesday night. Four evenings later – this Saturday – it will be the turn of the Kilkenny seniors to visit Wexford Park. A fortnight later, the Kilkenny minors will face their Wexford inquisition at the same venue.
It’s inconceivable, surely, that Kilkenny could suffer a hat-trick of horrors on Slaneyside. Certainly, the bookies aren’t anticipating a Model county coup this weekend: Boylesports are quoting Wexford at 11/2 to win in 70 minutes, with Kilkenny a 1/8 shot.
Yet even these odds betray a hint of Kilkenny slippage.
Before the 2008 Leinster final, they were priced at a prohibitive 1/30, with Wexford a distant 11/1. Cody’s goal-hungry troops duly beat the 15-point handicap, cantering home by 5-21 to 0-17. Posterity has shown that summer to be the zenith for this group of players; a 19-point reprise on Saturday looks highly unlikely.
For all that, Kilkenny observers are rightly dismissive of the perception that their flagship team is suddenly obsolete. “It’s not that they will go off the face of the earth – finished. They are not,” insists Adrian Ronan, the former player and current minor manager.
“We won’t be that far off the top this year,” predicts Pat Henderson, star centre-back on the ’70s team and a member of the committee overseeing the development squad system in Kilkenny.
“We have a good set of hurlers coming through still,” points out Brendan O’Sullivan, who chairs the above committee. “I wouldn’t be worried about it from that end; there are more youngsters than ever playing in Kilkenny.”
Still, what’s apparent to most observers is that those couple of seasons around 2007/08, when Kilkenny routinely hammered all and sundry, are unlikely to be revisited in the shortterm.
“The panel over the last 10 years have been exceptional. That invincibility couldn’t last forever,” Ronan reflects.
“I think there is a case to be made that other teams in the noughties mightn’t have had the groundwork done and only realised this in the ’05- 07 years. Now that’s starting to happen.
“People are catching up on Kilkenny’s so-called structures and system,” he adds. “Now Kilkenny have to find a new system and structures to survive because, as results show this year, Tipp are better than last year, Cork are better, Dublin are better, and we are entering the championship with a cloud about our performances.
“But I think there will be a backlash from Kilkenny,” Ronan declares. “We got to a league final this year with maybe six or seven lads missing most days off the team that Brian Cody would want.”
Henderson echoes that point, surveying the spring glass half-full.
“Kilkenny’s run in the league was exceptional under the circumstances,” he says. “They probably arrived tired at a league final against an exceptionally good Dublin team, but they’ve had a couple of weeks to regroup, freshen up, and get niggling injuries out of the way.”
In the short-term, therein lies the key. On the proviso that Henry Shefflin’s knee, Tommy Walsh’s shoulder, Richie Power’s hip and JJ Delaney’s hamstrings stay healthy, and also presuming Michael Fennelly gets back soon from his broken hand, then Cody will have a starting team to match, if not eclipse, most others.
As for what’s coming next, there is hope tempered by caution. Kilkenny’s last U21 coronation came in the ‘Grand Slam’ year of 2008, but they have won two of the last three All-Ireland minors (’08 and ’10). So the well has scarcely run dry; it’s just that the next Shefflin has yet to reveal himself.
For Henderson, the “gratifying part” is how their development squad system (covering U14 to U17) has facilitated players from small junior clubs to graduate onto winning minor teams.
He also stresses the vital developmental role of Kilkenny’s flourishing colleges system, spearheaded by St Kieran’s but ably supplemented by Kilkenny CBS and Castlecomer CS.
O’Sullivan says the system is “inclusive as opposed to exclusive”, with a view to developing clubs as well as county teams; hence they start with as many as 140 players at U14.
He also highlights the late-blooming examples of Eddie Brennan and Derek Lyng, who suddenly emerged in their early 20s. “That is the idea of the development squad – the more young lads you develop, the late developer will come through and he can be more important,” O’Sullivan says.
Meanwhile, Ronan surveys Kilkenny’s minor and U21 teams of the past five years and sees “no need to panic. Special players come at certain times – in our time we had (DJ) Carey”.
“In the present era they’ve had Shefflin, Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney … maybe Kilkenny may not have a special player coming through now under 25, but we have very, very good hurlers,” he concludes.