Henry Shefflin: While the players questioned themselves, Brian Cody was planning and plotting
Only in retirement do I fully appreciate the physical and mental investment we needed to win
Standing on the doorstep of a new Championship was always going to be the hardest part of retirement for me, but I'm beginning to realise now that my timing was probably perfect.
It's as if my body has been sending subtle little messages of reassurance that it was the right time to go, but, looking back, it's the mental challenge I maybe feel the greatest release from now.
That's something you're not really aware of at the time, but the inter-county game just eats up so much of your concentration, it's like a weight being lifted when you finally step away. That's certainly how I'm feeling right now.
Maybe the fact that Kilkenny aren't playing until June 21 is still keeping things at a slight distance and I know it'll definitely hit me in the lead-up to that game, which I presume will be against Wexford.
I'm talking all the time to the Ballyhale lads - TJ, the Fennellys and Joey Holden - and I still meet the likes of Jackie Tyrrell and Richie Power in the gym. Their focus at the moment is slightly torn between club and county.
So, I can't say I've found retirement in any way strange so far. It's certainly been different to be home so much and that's been good.
Also I feel so comfortable now with how I exited the county scene, there's absolutely no part of me wondering if I should be still in there. What was there left to prove?
It's funny. When you're in that bubble of an inter-county set-up, there's this constant process of just driving relentlessly forward all the time. The cycle consumes you and it's only when you step away that you really appreciate the ridiculous nature of what we have achieved in Kilkenny.
I'm talking to JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh now and we're thinking it's crazy the number of All-Irelands we won in our careers.
But, when I look back, there was always this fairly swift transformation from celebrating an All-Ireland to re-setting the goals for another season. As a player, it's always 'next year, next year, next year. . .' It's what makes me think now why would I have gone back? What more could I reasonably achieve?
I think back to the end of 2005 as the toughest time of my hurling career. Obviously, the subsequent injuries (two cruciates, a ripped shoulder tendon and broken foot) would challenge me in a different way. But if you think back to that time, Kilkenny had lost the '04 Leinster semi-final to Wexford and been beaten badly in the '04 All-Ireland final by Cork.
Then in '05, Galway blew us out of the water in the All-Ireland semi-final. Only for Eddie Brennan's 2-4, the scoreline could have been an embarrassment.
Until then, in my inter-county career, we'd always bounced straight back from disappointments. But this was very much a crossroads. The question was being asked, 'Is this the end of the road for Kilkenny?'
I remember wondering myself had hurling just moved on to a different place? Were we being left behind?
That's certainly what some people were thinking and what some were writing. 2005 was also the year we lost our first county final to James Stephens. The disappointments just seemed to keep coming and I remember wondering at one stage if all the effort was worth it. There was a big question-mark hanging over not just Kilkenny's future, but my own personally.
Looking back, that was probably where we saw Brian Cody's resolve at its greatest. Going back in in '06, his attitude was that we just were not going to lose. That was his mentality.
All the questions that we had about ourselves, the general air of negativity that surrounded us, had to be confronted. But he just instilled this conviction that things would be different in '06. That nothing would stop Kilkenny.
I remember my groins were at me through that winter and, straight away, he told me to forget the early rounds of the League. The priority was to get my body right and be absolutely ready for the Championship. So, I was confined to straight-line running for the first few months of that year, just building up my fitness.
When I look back now, while we were questioning ourselves through those winter months, Brian was just planning and plotting, finding new players, essentially re-seeding the team. That, I suppose, is his greatness. I mean who could have imagined at the end of the '05 Championship that we would win seven of the next nine All-Irelands?
That said, I suspect he will be wary of Wexford now.
I was very impressed by them last year. Liam Dunne has done a great job in the sense that he seems to have adapted their style of hurling to the player-profile available.
Previously, they were always inclined to go for bigger players, in the forwards particularly. Now they've some smaller, nippier lads who use the ball much more intelligently.
You could see the change in Wexford last year in terms of fitness levels and they've a lot of pace in the team now.
You'd have to assume Liam has brought all of that on to another level again now. Wexford's movement impressed me last year, but one thing you can take as read is that Kilkenny will treat them with absolute respect.
That has always been the case in a team managed by Brian and, having seen Wexford beat the All-Ireland champions last year, I would expect Kilkenny to be really geared up for them if, as expected, they meet in a Leinster semi-final. Forewarned is forearmed here.
On the other side, going on form, you'd have to take Dublin to be the ones to come through. I was very impressed by them in the League, they probably should have made the final. You can see that bit of freshness in them under a new manager in Ger Cunningham.
But Galway are the great enigma and, because of my past experiences with them, I'm almost conditioned to be wary of them.
That said, I like some of the changes Cunningham has been making with the Dubs, like pushing Liam Rushe into the forwards. I think Dublin have a stronger panel than they had previously and I'd fancy them to get past Galway, which would bring them into a semi-final against Offaly.
I have huge respect for Offaly hurling because, when I was starting, their great era was just coming to an end.
There has obviously been a massive fall from grace since then. It's a tough job for Brian Whelahan and they had a really bad first day out in last year's Championship at Nowlan Park.
My suspicion is that that knocked the stuffing out of them confidence-wise for the rest of the year.
Twelve months on, they've steadied with some good performances in the League, especially a win over Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds.
For the size of the county, Offaly have produced some extraordinary hurlers. But Brian needs everything going their way to push Dublin or Galway this year and I just think that will be a bridge too far.
That said, I think Offaly will be a lot closer to the pack this summer.
In Munster, that first Clare-Limerick game will be massive. For either team to lose on May 24, it takes a fair leap of the imagination to then see them winning the All-Ireland in September. It's just too long a road.
Limerick got great credit for their performance in the All-Ireland semi-final last year and it was richly deserved. But, at the end of the day, they were beaten. They need to push on this year.
I don't doubt Clare have been targeting this game big-time and it's going to be really interesting to see what formation Davy Fitzgerald goes with this year.
The winners play Tipperary, who surely had to be disappointed at not winning the League. I mean they have had some serious hurlers these last few years, but there's no title behind their name.
So, winning a title has to be the priority for Tipp this year, which is why I was surprised they were beaten by Waterford in the League semi-final.
You'd have to believe that coming so close to the big prize last September will be a great motivation for Tipp now. I would imagine Eamon O'Shea is very much focused on going the direct route this year and I think, whoever comes through between Clare and Limerick, Tipp should have their measure in the semi-final.
From my experience, it's a slight negative for Waterford on the other side that they're straight back out again against the team they beat in the League final.
I always hated playing teams for a second time in the Championship if they'd come through the back door. I also think the loss of Pauric Mahony is a really cruel blow for Waterford.
You can't overstate the loss of a top-quality free-taker in the game today, particularly for a team like Waterford, who like to attack from deep, running at defendersand routinely drawning them into fouls.
Any free from within 80 yards is an almost certain score with someone like Mahony in your team. It's a vital source of leadership to the group that they're going to miss now.
That said, Waterford were by far the better team in the League final and, on the evidence of that game, Cork have a lot of ground to make up. Their fade-outs in games have to be very concerning for Jimmy Barry-Murphy and they seem to be chopping and changing with the spine of the defence.
I'd be maybe a bit old-fashioned in my view that the spine of a team must always be very sound, very settled. I know that Brian Cody definitely adheres to that view.
Cork have hugely skilful hurlers, guys like Patrick Horgan who can all but make a ball talk. The question-mark over them is about ball-winning ability. Seamus Harnedy has been the one shining light in that regard, but they need more men like him. Pa Cronin, in my view, has been missed.
That said, if you want to get a kick in the backside, the League final might be the right time to get it. And there's no doubt about it, Cork are not as bad as they were in that game.
You can see the young Waterford players really believe in Derek McGrath, they remind me of the way Davy Fitz had Clare in 2013, when they clearly took on board everything he said.
If Waterford win this game, they'll become a serious threat in this Championship. And you could see the supporters getting really passionately behind them, like they did in '02 and '03 with the team of John Mullane and Eoin Kelly and Paul Flynn.
But I expect Cork to come out with all guns blazing and they might just sneak this one.
Beyond that though, my belief is that Tipp will win the Munster title and Kilkenny will come out on top in Leinster. And the All-Ireland champions?
Read Henry Shefflin's column every Saturday at Independent.ie
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