Fountain of youth is drying up for Kilkenny hurlers
A lack of underage success could leave Kilkenny's dynasty looking vulnerable
On Friday night the Kilkenny side to face Dublin emerged with further surprises and a marked fall in the team's age profile. Just as we were marvelling at the old guard being recalled to duty, out went Tommy Walsh and Aidan Fogarty, two thirtysomethings whose places looked reasonably secure. They make way for younger men: Walter Walsh, 23, and John Power, who is 22 next month.
Before this there was a noticeable shift in the other direction. Some of the players who had received extended game-time in the national league had gradually drifted off the team and been replaced by doughty veterans. Walsh, a crowd favourite, was one of those. He appeared to have been been neatly reinvented as a half-forward, where he started the 2003 All-Ireland final.
But Kilkenny retain some old hands. Brian Hogan is 33 in August and manning centre-back, while two of the full-back line, JJ Delaney and Jackie Tyrrell, are 32. None of the other championship contenders have the same quota of players in that age bracket in their defence, even if those Kilkenny players have exceptional track records and are coming off strong performances last weekend.
That reflects a lack of sufficiently persuasive bids from the younger generation and a slowdown in the conveyor belt of precocious talent. "They don't seem to be hopping up as regular as they were," John Power, the former Kilkenny hurler, admits. This year's under 21s have no player on the senior panel. It flies in the face of modern trends. The All-Ireland champions Clare have been gorging themselves on under 21 All-Irelands with three since 2009, each one contributing handsomely to the senior team that triumphed last year.
It is not an entirely reliable gauge, as Galway keep showing. It is worth noting too, that Kilkenny were beaten by Clare in two of those under 21 finals, by just a point in 2009. But what county would not feel a lot happier to be winning minor and under 21 titles? This year's Kilkenny under 21s were heavily beaten by Wexford in Nowlan Park. This came after the minors lost at home to Dublin, scoring a meagre 0-3. The last All-Ireland minor was four years ago, the last under 21 win two years before that.
And so at a time of youth and fast legs, Kilkenny show faith in a number of players on the far side of 30, even if this selection sees some readjustment.
Power watched the highlights of Kilkenny's Leinster semi-final win over Galway last Sunday night. "Tomás Mulcahy assessed on RTE that Kilkenny will be playing in a big field (Croke Park) and we don't know what they have till after the Leinster final. But they are after proving liars of everyone for the last three or four years."
That is a fair point. Through force of will, outstanding hurlers and some improvisation, Kilkenny have extended their shelf-life. "Henry is up there shoving 36. His last point against Galway (in the drawn match) is evidence of how good he is," states Power. "Nobody mentions the handpass that Taggy Fogarty gave him for the point; it was a massive handpass He rose it on the sideline and gave a handpass of a yard and a half; if Taggy was from a different county he would have gone round to his right hand and went for the winner himself. That is the mindset of this Kilkenny team."
Power, who retired with an All-Ireland medal in 2002, says he "did (his) best hurling from 31 to 36 and I got nominated for an All Star for four seasons and I was meant to be finished in '98 (the year he was left off the squad). It is definitely a mindset. If you have the mentality, you are at an incredible stage to play hurling. Because you are more settled in life."
Kilkenny are certainly not dead yet. They are back in Croke Park and in a Leinster final, unlike last year, and their followers feel they can win back the title. Absence of motivation was never an issue for a Brian Cody team. But the challenges others set for them are always more enticing than the ones they set for themselves. They were demonically driven in 2006, the All-Ireland final performance against Cork containing everything a manager would want from a team. The fire lit in 2011 after a national league final wipeout from Dublin didn't need any accelerant. Now they strive to show they are not a beaten docket, that they can still set the terms of engagement like they used to.
They have spent the spring having a thorough look through all available options but ultimately their faith has been placed in names that need no introduction. Even Walter Walsh is a player who has had a couple of seasons under his belt and was one of their more effective hurlers against Dublin last year. If age is a determining factor in the older Kilkenny players' careers then Galway failed to take advantage. They now face the more open plains against a Dublin team that will seek to exploit space and go at them.
Power says that the team is under no pressure to perform. "I suppose Kilkenny are lucky in that they are a team that does not have to prove anything to anybody. Had they lost to Galway there would not be terrible disappointment; it is not a pressure situation anymore and I think that is the big secret. Tipp supporters are very disappointed and hurt and every day they go to see them they are getting more frustrated. They have actually very talented players out on the field. And they can't get them to accomplish what they are capable of. And it is the exact opposite in Kilkenny.
"There is absolute pleasure in being a Kilkenny supporter at the moment and it is taking pressure off the team on the field. While we are mad for success, we are not really starved and under pressure for success. If someone has an off-day the supporters excuse him and say he is entitled to an off-day. You know they are good enough. They have done it before and people are positive they can produce it on the day."
Tommy Walsh will still have a role and it would be little surprise were he to play some part given his positive contributions up to now. "He is unique in one way, foolish in another way," says Power, "with his massive passion to play. He never missed out on a game for the whole of his career whereas for the last three or four years maybe he should have taken it handy in the league and spared his body a bit. But I think he wore his body down trying to play every game. And I felt being left out for the last while was not a bad thing. When he came on in the Galway game he showed freshness and his ability to throw the ball around was very evident."
Kilkenny have not been blessed with much luck with injuries in recent years and continue to function impressively in the absence of players like Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice. To have won two All-Irelands after 2010 is a feat that hasn't got the full recognition it deserves. Richie Power is another plagued by injury and Shefflin's availability given his injury problems would not be feasible if he did not think there might be something at the end. At 35, almost certainly in his last year, he is seeking a tenth All-Ireland medal.
In recent years Kilkenny have introduced new players like this season's find, Pádraig Walsh. But the slowdown in underage success is noticeable. A marked decline in minor success and natural ageing led to the fall of the great Tipperary side of the 1960s. It is doubtful that Kilkenny will suffer the same dire consequences. After losing the 1973 Munster final Tipperary didn't win a provincial championship match for 10 years. The All-Ireland minor win of 1959 was Tipp's seventh in 11 seasons, but their last until 1976. The writing was on the wall.
Kilkenny failed to win a minor All-Ireland from 1993 to 2002 and in that period didn't win a senior All-Ireland for seven years. Not winning minor titles won't necessarily mean you won't win senior All-Irelands; it is more likely that you won't dominate or have sustained success. The process of winning becomes much more challenging. Shrewd management of resources is all the more essential. Since winning the All-Ireland minor title in 2002, Kilkenny won further titles in '03, '08 and 2010. Only the 1970s brought Kilkenny as many wins at minor grade. The players were queuing up.
Cork are back as a serious challenger, even with a poor recent track record in underage hurling; no minor All-Ireland since 2001 and no under 21 All-Ireland since 1998. Of course Galway, who have won three All-Ireland under 21 titles since 2005, and five minors since 2000, more minors than Kilkenny, and more than Cork and Tipp combined, remain a mystery of ongoing malfunction.
"Like all great teams you are always waiting for the day when you are meeting this young team that will open you up," says Power. "Like the Dick O'Hara and Ger Henderson team of 1984 and Martin Fitzhenry scored the three goals. And no back door. This team is postponing it big time every day. If they can win on Sunday they are back in an All-Ireland semi-final. Anthony Daly and Dublin are under more pressure than Kilkenny going into the Leinster final. They won last year. A defeat sends out a signal that they are not able to take the step up."
Have they the alchemy right or will those older legs find the course too trying like many hurlers have before? Therein lies the beautiful mystery of today.
Sunday Indo Sport