Monday 24 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: Cats sharpen their claws

After Dubs' drubbing, Cody's charges look to rekindle fire at training in Nowlan Park

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The roll call is a murmured audit, given only furtive air like a rumour in a church. Maybe 20 people sit in the old stand, assembled in stern pockets. Diehards. There is kudos available to the knowledgeable tonight, for Brian Cody has tweaked his panel. The players are already helmeted, so the trick is identifying new men by their gait.

"That's Bergin," says one and the names begin to roll.

"Lester Ryan is there ... "

"There's Joyce from The Rower ... "

"Is that Tommy Walsh's brother?"

"Anyone see Gorta?"

The chatter ceases. They stare out into the gloaming for a glimpse of that stooping, pencil-thin silhouette, but Martin Comerford is nowhere to be seen. "He's across the road," sighs someone then, audibly bored by their own wisdom.


"Training with O'Loughlins!"

"No way."

"Must have changed his mind."

It is Tuesday in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny's first night back since that league final meltdown. A gate at the corner of the Ted Carroll Stand hangs open. Maybe the greatest team hurling has known will store no secrets here tonight, yet the giant shadow of what they have achieved seems to have spawned an ambivalent public.

From just after six, players' cars have been swinging in off the Hebron Road, modern-day greats crunching, six-a-penny, across the shale. No autograph hunters intercept them as they gather their kit-bags and hurleys. Maybe this is what happens when glory becomes humdrum.

Most arrive early, drawn -- it seems -- by the simple, tactile pleasure of striking a sliotar in sunlight.

Just after 6.40, Henry Shefflin materialises in a black shirt with the number 18 on his back and begins a solitary exercise, tossing the ball in front of him and jab-lifting at speed. He then starts striking it over and back to Brian Hogan, Kilkenny's captain wearing the tricoloured shirt of Offaly tonight.

On the dot of seven, a shriek of Michael Dempsey's whistle sunders the evening calm. Suddenly, it is business.

They start with a hand-passing drill, support runners arriving slingshot on the carrier's shoulder. Shefflin is excluded, a physio guiding him through stretching exercises by the toes of the new stand. He looks lean as a bog hare.

Then things get physical and THAT voice asserts its iron law.

Cody stands in black tracksuit, hands in pockets, eyes chasing the tiniest ripple of weakness. The ball-carrier and a defender now front up in an apron of space outlined by four bodies. Cody's interest is, largely, in the defender here. He bellows instruction.

"Make it hard, make it hard ...

"Don't foul, don't foul, stand him up ...

"Push him, drive him back, then drive him back again ... .

"No pulling and dragging.

"Get up, get up..."

The rutting exercise is a furious drain on energy and he knows it. He calls everyone together, offering a personal demonstration.

And the old, dormant full-back comes out in him as he squares his shoulders, stiffening as if prepared for impact. If it is an invitation, no-one takes it. He looks immovable as a stone pillar.

"It's hard lads, it's hard," he acknowledges, sending them back for more.

Among those watching intently from the stand is the county's U-21 manager, Michael Walsh.

A long-time student of the Cody template, Walsh has come hoping to see a practice game.

There are only 26 here, but -- just as Walsh prepares to leave -- the green and blue tops are distributed. This is where the appetite of the high priests will be explored, for Kilkenny practice games are, routinely, seeded with venom.

In the league final, they were without samurai like Henry, Tommy Walsh and Michael Fennelly. They then lost JJ Delaney to a bad hamstring. JJ circles the pitch now in runners, committed to a high mileage jog as the others go to battle.

Cody delivers his instructions and they can be condensed into two words -- "fast ball". He doesn't want Hail Mary shots from out the countryside. He wants people lifting heads, making runs, scoring goals.

What follows surely reassures him. Against Dublin, the team looked to have lost that old, implacable calm that's been a hallmark of the Cody years. The indifference to pain. In the league final, they over-reacted to things. They behaved as if resentful of physical contact.

It wasn't the Kilkenny we knew and, as such, begged the question if that Kilkenny still existed.

Here, the signals suggest they do. Richie Hogan and Noel Hickey chase a ball towards the old stand, where Hogan aggressively bullocks Hickey out over the line. "Well done Richie," bellows Cody.

This is his territory.

Later, when Hickey spears out in front of Hogan to announce an intact spirit, his manager applauds with a simple "G'wan Hickey."

The exchanges are fast and freighted with enough aggression to establish an authentic feel. There is no talk of other teams, no mention of a media that has taken to depicting them as lost in some kind of autumnal slide now.

Shefflin starts in the corner, then seems to take up a floating role. He is running freely and, when he snaffles a goal, Cody erupts "That's good running Henry. GREAT running!"

All the usual suspects are motoring. Tommy Walsh hoovers up ball like a driving-range tractor. Once, he runs into traffic, but locates an escape by flicking over his head to an unmarked colleague. "Tommy make sure," comes the cry.

But this is Walsh's greatness. A blaze of little fugitive things that Cody understands you can't access through a coaching manual.

The soundtrack is, largely, positive.

"Great running Richie ... good man Hogie...c'mon Ricey, get over."

The game is played in three segments of maybe six minutes each. He calls them in after the first and re-asserts a few ground rules. "No room, no room" he stresses. "Take responsibility for one man tonight.

"And make that man yours. Stand up to him."

In the final segment, someone encourages TJ Reid to try a long-range point, but Cody interjects. "There's no 'take your point'," he hollers. Tonight the ball must be worked in.

Shefflin catches the eye all through with the simple intelligence of his movement. He's not quite running at full pelt, but he is close enough to nurture hope. By the end of the game, he has top-scored with 3-1.

Cody tells the players that what they've done has been "decent" and releases them back into Dempsey's care for a series of punishing shuttle runs. Now the helmets are discarded like spent cartridges on half-way and, soon, tongues are out the side of mouths, the heavy breathing carrying all the way up to the seated judiciary. There's not much optimism articulated here.

"Sure they owe us nothing," says one. "Yerra, there's nothing will beat Tipp anyway," sighs another.

Walsh has a different theory. In the 2008 Leinster U-21 Championship, Kilkenny beat Dublin by nine points. Last Sunday week, nine players from each of those teams lined out in the league final. They did so from different bases.

Almost all of the Dublin players have had three years of senior inter-county experience since. Kilkenny? You don't change what isn't broken. The flip side of having a team re-write the record books is that the next generation must wait. As Walsh puts it, the young Dubs have had exposure to the "hardship" of senior hurling that Kilkenny's have yet to access. It will come.

The session ends after a bout of stretching on the dot of 8.40 and, as the players head to the showers, Cody and Dempsey stand chatting to Eoin Larkin. Slowly, they begin walking.

Up in the stand, someone mentions Henry.

He "wasn't moving badly you know" and "Tommy looked like he was coming round." A "pity" about Gorta, they say, but "Power is nearly back to himself".

And away they go with their stories, no-one ready to lay a garland.

Irish Independent

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