Wednesday 7 December 2016

All Blacks and Kilkenny's dominance over opponents begins in the mind

Christy O'Connor

Published 18/12/2015 | 02:30

Kilkenny’s Shane Prendergast in action against Galway’s Conor Whelan. Picture: Dáire Brennan / SPORTSFILE
Kilkenny’s Shane Prendergast in action against Galway’s Conor Whelan. Picture: Dáire Brennan / SPORTSFILE

Ger Loughnane's iconic status as the Godfather of Clare hurling is underlined by the fact that any time the Banner have won anything over the last five years, he has always been the natural choice to present the medals. And Loughnane has used that stage as a forum to outline his grand vision and hopes for Clare's future.

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And invariably, he has used Kilkenny as the example to follow.

At the 2010 Munster minor medal presentation, Loughnane spoke about Clare's pressing need in "three years time to be able to contest the ball in the air and in the tight like Kilkenny".

At the 2012 All-Ireland U-21 banquet, Loughnane focused on character and its importance in building success, comparing Kilkenny to the All Blacks. At last year's U-21 presentation, Loughnane spoke about Kilkenny again but he changed tack slightly.

Quoting extracts from Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken, he spoke about the perils of taking the wrong path, compared to the "uphill path trodden by the legends of hurling". Yet he placed Kilkenny in a different context this time around. "The big ogre - Kilkenny - is beginning to lose his sense of danger," said Loughnane. "There is a gap in the market again."

When Kilkenny were hammered by Tipperary in March, Loughnane returned to that theme.

"It's hard to believe there are so many ordinary players on the current team," wrote Loughnane. "Some are barely of Intermediate standard. There is very little new quality. The speed at which the well has run dry is encouraging for every other county. But it's alarming for Kilkenny."

A raft of big name retirements, with the loss of 48 All-Ireland medals from the dressing-room, looked to have stripped another layer from Kilkenny's aura during the spring when they ended up in a league relegation play-off.

Yet where did that debate really start and end? After the 2011 All-Ireland final, Kilkenny lost five players with 33 All-Ireland medals and they still went on to retain their title.

Any fears during the spring were offset by how many big names Kilkenny still had to return. In any case, losing big players hasn't diminished the aura. It has just kept shimmering as brightly.

That aura of invincibility is intrinsically connected to Brian Cody. Although Kilkenny were crippled by injuries, the worst year they've had in the last 15 years was when Cody had to step away from the squad for nearly two months between April-May 2013.

Former goalkeeper David Herity recalled a story over the summer to highlight how central Cody (left) is to Kilkenny's aura. At half-time in the 2012 Leinster final, Kilkenny were 14 points down to Galway. Kilkenny still lost but they outscored Galway in second half. That was where the road to winning that year's All-Ireland began.

Shampoo

"Without the expletives," said Herity, "Cody's exact words were, 'If anyone here thinks we're bet, go into the showers because we're going to war in this second half. I remember thinking, 'Did I bring shampoo?' I wasn't being negative, I just felt we weren't playing well enough to come back. Then I looked around and nobody else was thinking that way.

"There is never any panic in a Kilkenny dressing-room, especially at half-time. Even if you're behind, there is this feeling of, 'Relax, this is what we need to do to fix this, we will win'.

"You know you're going to get a whole new lease of life for the second half. It's an amazing thing to be part of. Once Kilkenny are alive and still breathing at half-time, they normally come out and just destroy teams."

The 20 minutes after half-time of September's All-Ireland final confirmed as much when Kilkenny outscored Galway 0-9 to 0-2. Kilkenny lifted their intensity. They were making more tackles, winning more dirty ball. They just know how to get it done -when to lift the pace, when to drop the hammer.

After hardly training all summer with a back injury, Michael Fennelly looked loaded down from that strain when only making two plays in the 25 minutes before half-time. Yet he thundered into the second half like a human wrecking ball, making 17 plays. Fennelly was man of the match. He ended the season as a nailed-on All-Star.

Fennelly's huge mental strength has enabled him to overcome such physical setbacks and still thrive. Kilkenny's mental strength adds to their aura of invincibility. Their winning record, especially in September, has just added more sheen to it.

Yet how much are teams now taken by that aura? An hour before the All-Ireland final, a multi-decorated former Kilkenny player spoke about a player from another county commenting that week that "Kilkenny have a 25pc edge on you mentally before the game even begins".

He was taken aback that so many teams were putting Kilkenny up on such a high pedestal. The ex-player also referred to the repeated comparisons with the All Blacks, and how amusing they found it in Kilkenny.

"As long as everyone else thinks of us like the All Blacks," he said, "the better it is for Kilkenny. The harder Kilkenny will be to beat."

A few days after the All-Ireland final, one Kilkenny player privately remarked on the comparative "body language from some Galway players between the first and second halves". And once Kilkenny smell blood, the kill is imminent.

Donal Og Cusack made a comparison between Kilkenny and the 'Death Zone' on Mount Everest, the point beyond the 8,000-metre mark when there isn't enough oxygen for you to breathe. There is little more than 800 metres of climbing left to get you to the summit but climbers become weak, they lose the ability to think straight, they struggle to make good decisions under stress. They become disoriented. They forget the plan.

"In hurling, the Death Zone is where Galway lost the All-Ireland final," wrote Cusack. "As a species they have evolved in Kilkenny to the point where they can survive longer and operate better in the Death Zone than any group we have ever seen.

Exploit

"They don't just prepare to survive the Death Zone. They prepare to be part of it. They prepare to exploit it. The Death Zone is the biggest challenge facing all hurlers who don't wear the black and amber."

This year's success underlined again how Kilkenny's training games in prepare the players for that zone. This team is nowhere near the machine of the last decade but the fact that Kilkenny are now going for another three-in-a-row places as much focus on everyone else, and their failure to bridge that gap, as it does on Kilkenny.

If they win three-in-a-row next year, then there will be talk about four, and maybe five-in-a-row. After Tipp took them down in 2010, everyone thought talk of that kind of dynasty building would never be seen or heard of again.

Talking about it again now may seem fanciful but this Kilkenny team hammered Wexford, the Leinster final was over with 20 minutes remaining, the Waterford game was effectively over after TJ Reid's first-half goal, while the Cats won the All-Ireland final with a solid second-half performance.

Of course it wasn't that easy. All-Irelands, no matter how many Kilkenny have, are always difficult to win.

Most of the teams which underperformed this year can do much better. Yet Kilkenny still keep getting the job done. They still have brilliant players, especially up front. After the mass of big-name retirements last year, the belief among the current group is that they are only getting started, that more All-Irelands are well within their grasp.

Teams need to psychologically work on trying to ensure the outcome against Kilkenny doesn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy, to believe that they can be beaten.

"The aura of the All Blacks is huge," said the renowned rugby coach Ian McGeechan once about New Zealand. "You have to have the attitude that the All Blacks are going to be better than any side you have ever faced.

"If you are doing something wrong, they will be getting it right. If you are not there in a certain situation, they will be. There is a saying that you do not beat New Zealand - you just get more points than them at the final whistle. That sums up their attitude. You just know that any game against them is going to have that sort of edge, intensity and competitiveness."

Kilkenny's aura fuels their dominance. And unless other teams begin stripping back that aura, layer by layer, the dominance is going to continue.

Irish Independent

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