independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

End of an era for a team of great men

Walter Walsh finds his way blocked by Cork's Conor O'Sullivan

When great teams slowly die, the process takes on the condition of a peepshow. Kilkenny looked wrung-out and drained from a long way out yesterday and, under a lilac Thurles sky, it was oddly uncomfortable to see it. They were so ponderous, so lethargic next to a coltish Cork team, they could have been playing with concrete in their hurleys.

The old game has made a comedy of pundits this summer and, clearly, been none the worse for doing it. But Kilkenny haven't been themselves and, ever since Dublin slapped a jackboot on their throats in Portlaoise, their season had become a highwire act in a strengthening wind.

The killer gust may well have been Barry Kelly's 34th-minute decision to brandish a second yellow card to Henry Shefflin, but Kilkenny were tottering long before that. Truth to tell, they've been unsteady on their feet all summer.

That said, the sight of Shefflin being ordered off for a second technical infringement did not sit easy. If his two 'offences' merited yellow cards, then the game should – technically – have ended as a 10-a-side.

Greatest

It is surely unthinkable that perhaps the greatest hurling career of all might end this way, albeit wreaths may well be premature for the team in general. But Cork presented Kilkenny with a game they could not parse, let alone answer yesterday. Jimmy Barry-Murphy's men had more quality, more wisdom and, tellingly, more edge.

Still, the Cork manager understood precisely what he had seen.

"It's quite obvious Kilkenny aren't the team they were," said Barry-Murphy. "But, in fairness, no team can keep going forever."

Maybe Kilkenny's greatest trick was to make you believe they might. For a decade and a half there has been something unemotional and gently calculated about the way Cody brought them to the big games, pitched to a ferocity they came to regard as humdrum. Nine All-Irelands have been harvested on his watch, great players subordinating themselves to epic trust in the collective.

Kilkenny took hurling to a place the rest of the game could not get to.

But little by little, the fabric has begun to fray this year and, yesterday, their lavishly decorated generals all looked resoundingly human. Fourteen months ago, the same men humiliated Barry-Murphy's team at this same venue. Factoring in that Cork subsequently lost Darren Sweetnam to rugby, Damien Cahalane and Eoin Cadogan to gaelic football, then Paudie O'Sullivan and Brian Murphy to injury, this should logically have been beyond them.

But they sensed opportunity in Kilkenny's recent struggles and, palpably, chose to test the champions' stomach from first whistle.

They led from the seventh minute all the way home and when two small flash-fires of scuffling erupted midway through the first-half, Cork looked more comfortable with the sparky narrative. The first arrived after Colin Fennelly went to ground under frank persuasion from the entire Cork full-back line, Kelly signalling a free out. The next blew up when William Egan brilliantly shouldered a goal-bound Walter Walsh out over the end line.

Each time, the back slaps and clenched fists announced that Cork would not countenance a backward step. For Kilkenny, it had to be like a weary prize fighter seeing his opponent reject the comfort of a stool between rounds.

Then to palpable gasps, Shefflin got his marching orders and it was like seeing handcuffs put on a nun. Something fundamental jarred.

Seconds later, Stephen McDonnell made a miraculous block on a goal-bound Walter Walsh shot and the hum from the stands had a frenzied tone as the teams went in at half-time, Cork five points up and bullish. The peepshow open.

As Luke O'Farrell read it, the day now held a certain karma.

"Kilkenny are possibly the greatest team of all time," said O'Farrell. "We didn't get the rub of the green in the Munster final, having a player sent off, but obviously Kilkenny didn't get the rub of the green today. I'm not too sure what happened with Henry, he's possibly one of the greatest players ever to play the game, so it's very sad to see a player like that going off.

"But there's no point lying, it did gee us up. We knew from the last day what it was like to play with 14 men. So it really galvanized our side."

Shefflin's dismissal was thrown into rather sharp context immediately after the resumption when, with Michael Fennelly and Lorcan McLoughlin openly wrestling on the half-way line, Eoin Larkin torqued towards the Killinan-end goal only to be intercepted by a wild, one-handed pull from Shane O'Neill. Kelly instantly awarded the penalty, cards subsequently being shown to O'Neill, Fennelly and McLoughlin.

Quite what Richie Power might have to say about Tommy Walsh's decision to go sprinting into the parallelogram just as he struck a surgically accurate penalty to the Cork net we can only guess. But Kelly was correct to demand a re-take and, this time, Anthony Nash pulled off a wonder double-save from Power and the bould Tommy before Richie settled for his point.

That was as good as it was going to get for Kilkenny.

Without Shefflin, their fidelity to tradition now effectively led them down a cul-de-sac. Time and again, high deliveries were directed towards the Cork 'square' where Cork's extra man, Conor O'Sullivan, might as well have been sitting in a deck chair under a parasol.

Great men like Fennelly and Eoin Larkin were out on their feet now, trying to get to the pitch of a game that had long since wrestled free of Kilkenny's grasp.

Yet, when it ended, Cody was as he has always been. A big man with the grace to know there is no refuge in bitterness. He stood quietly in the dressing-room tunnel after, waiting for Barry-Murphy to finish his interviews before accompanying him to the winners' dressing-room.

Trying

The 'Village' man has had a monumentally trying year, but refrained from shining any light on his future.

Asked if he could see another All-Ireland in this team, he responded "There are several more seasons in them, the team obviously evolves and changes from year to year but there are so many players in that dressing room who have huge careers ahead of them."

And him personally?

"I won't say anything about myself that is for sure!"

Cody described the character of his team as "magnificent", insisting "the fellas were just superb, the spirit and determination they showed to get back into the game even when I suppose it was obviously lost. Their heads never dropped. They are a massive team, they have been and they are, but that's the way it goes and we came out the wrong end of it."

His bond with Shefflin is so profound, there is no doubting it will have wounded him to see the great man sent ashore in such cold circumstances. But, again, the cacophony of petty arguments did not interest him.

As to the sending-off, he did admit: "I have no idea ... I couldn't believe it to be honest. I didn't understand it but then again maybe I am not able to understand it. As regards yellow cards, it has gone crazy, it has gone mad altogether. But if that is the way they want it, that is the way they like it. I have no idea why Henry Shefflin got two yellow cards, but the second one was so clear to me.

"There was a Cork player falling down, his hurl was very low and when a player falls, the hurl obviously ends up around his neck but Henry didn't put the hurl up there. The person put his body down into it. But look I am not going to be complaining about referees or anything else. I could have done that for years and I haven't done it so congratulations to Cork, it was a great win."

"Our lads gave it everything, their spirit was fantastic out there and we kept going to the very, very end. Things did not particularly go our way, but we have been successful for a long time and we are facing now what a long number of county have faced from us over the years, I suppose."

Has Hell finally frozen over?

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