Defensive pillars present greatest test for Kilkenny
Published 17/06/2015 | 02:30
On more than one occasion since Ballyhale's All-Ireland club success in March, Henry Shefflin has been canvassed for his opinion on the vacancy at full-back in the wake of JJ Delaney's departure. Each time his answer has been much the same.
His club colleague Joey Holden is the man for the job. He has, in Shefflin's words, "the right stuff".
We can take that as a euphemism for anticipation but, above all, nerve. Because that's what it has always taken to command the position on Brian Cody's 16-season, 75-match span as Kilkenny manager.
Naturally, as the game's most successful manager, Cody chooses his teams carefully. What others might term a gamble is never quite seen the same way by the 10-time All-Ireland-winning manager and inevitably his judgment has been correct.
But with the No 3 shirt there is always a sense that Cody might be handing over the most priceless commodity of all. As a full-back himself when Kilkenny won the 1982 and '83 All-Ireland titles, Cody appreciates the nuances and requirements of full-back play in hurling at this level from first-hand experience.
And that's perhaps why the longest leases on any position on his championship team have always been reserved for those guardians on the edge of the square. It is, arguably, the game's most specialised position, one not tailored for even the best of defenders.
So later this week Holden can expect to join hurling's most exclusive club.
Just four players have featured at full-back on Cody's watch, five if you include Sean Meally who, according to some team-sheets, was sited there for the early stages of Kilkenny's 2000 Leinster semi-final win over Dublin with Noel Hickey in the corner to his left.
But from that point on, across a 70-game stretch, Kilkenny have had just three players in the pivotal position, Hickey, Delaney and John Tennyson who filled in for the 2005 All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-final against Limerick and Galway respectively when Hickey was ruled out with a cardiac virus.
His absence that day against Galway was felt, the concession of five goals just too coincidental.
By 2006, Delaney was being routinely switched from half-back to full-back and over the course of the nine seasons since then he played 29 times there, 11 fewer than Hickey.
It is a remarkable record from two of the great defensive practitioners in the game.
In Cody's eyes there has never been a better defender in the game than Delaney, something of which there is near universal consensus at this stage.
The ease with which he moved from half-back to the edge of the square said everything about him.
"Under high balls he was very strong," reflected Michael Fennelly. "You had all the security with him and you always want your full-back to have that security.
"The majority of balls that go in there, he was going to win. That's the way he has been, half-back or full-back, his whole life, 14 or 15 years.
"He's always nearly consistently won 80 per cent of balls that went into him. He's badly missed. Life goes on. Who will be in there at full-back, I'm not sure. But whoever goes in will be okay, will still be a good quality hurler. "
Most believe that will fall to Holden. Paul Murphy, arguably their best defender over the last three years at corner-back, had warmed to the challenge prior to the league but the auditions didn't always go smoothly for him.
Like Jackie Tyrrell, the corner seems the more natural habitat for him.
Murphy played five of the six league games at full-back, Michael Walsh deputising against Galway with Holden returning for the Clare relegation play-off at corner-back.
Holden may not have the blocky build of his two predecessors but he has pace and an understanding of what's involved and acquitted himself well for his club there during their most recent successful campaign. Cody may have a different plan by the weekend but right now Holden is the favourite.
"He has a good head on his shoulders," said Shefflin after the club final. "I think to be full-back you have to have a good head on your shoulders, a bit of know-how about what's going on around, it's a specialised position," he reflected.
The stability in the pillar defensive positions is reflected in the permanency of Cody's centre-backs too.
In that sense Brian Hogan's retirement should compound the concerns as he was the No 6 Cody has used most often in his 75 games in charge, playing 32 times there in all.
For his first three seasons Eamonn Kennedy was essentially his man with the exception of the games against Clare and Cork in the 1999 All-Ireland series when Pat O'Neill was recalled. But after the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway Cody changed many things and among them was his centre-back.
Peter Barry switched in from the wing and for the next four seasons he played all 19 games there before slipping quietly into retirement.
Tennyson was next up in 2006, playing all five games in the pivotal position as the All-Ireland title was reclaimed.
But by 2007 Brian Hogan had established himself as first choice and essentially remained that until last year when three different centre-backs were deployed in their seven championship games, their highest frequency in any season.
Jackie Tyrrell started there for the opening two games against Offaly and Galway, Hogan returned for the next four including the drawn All-Ireland final before Kieran Joyce's selection with Patrick 'Bonner' Maher in mind took him to centre-back for the second time in his career, having played there against Limerick in the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final.
Joyce is the most likely choice again but that leaves Kilkenny with a deficit of specific experience in the central defensive positions that they haven't had since 2006 when Delaney and Hogan both featured there in championship games for the first time.