Hurling's chief enforcer back to control old turf and provide the security Kilkenny crave
Michael Fennelly’s value to Brian Cody can’t be overstated after his return from latest injury setback
Even at the very moment that he felt that horrible snap in the Achilles, that has all the feeling of a really bad, raking kick to the back of the leg, Michael Fennelly’s great powers of recovery were in evidence.
The shock and the sudden pain experienced by those who have ruptured the strongest tendon in the body is usually enough to bring them to the ground with immediate effect.
Fennelly isn’t built like an ordinary mortal, however.
Pulling up sharply in the 58th minute of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final replay against Waterford, he managed to stabilise himself first on his right foot before lowering himself to the ground for treatment and removal.
By then the extent of what lay ahead for him was most visible in his face as he grimaced heavily.
No diagnosis was required for the 31-year-old to know that one of sport’s worst injuries was upon him and his career was hanging in the balance.
In the short term there was the loss of Fennelly from a Kilkenny side bidding for three in a row.
Given the influence he has had in so many previous Tipp battles, the 2011 All-Ireland final, the 2013 league final and the 2014 All-Ireland final replay in particular, it compounded his absence.
Tipp would never shirk the physical stuff but knowing that the game’s chief enforcer would not be operating the door that afternoon made access that little bit easier and they exploited accordingly.
Long term Fennelly faced an uncertain future. A ruptured Achilles is a long drawn-out process that offers no cast-iron guarantee that full motion and power will return.
But the Ballyhale man has long become accustomed to navigating a path of recovery for a body that could so easily have packed up on him under the weight of so many recurring injuries.
And so his return to the engine room for last weekend’s qualifier with Limerick and the impact he had, 11-and-a-half months on, casts Kilkenny in a different light.
His ruggedness and ease with an attritional environment allowed him to bring order to so many rucks in Nowlan Park.
The age of the fear laidir, the former Kerry manager Jack O’Connor’s reference to football’s midfield strongman, may have receded but it lives on in hurling through Fennelly.
There’s always an edge to Kilkenny’s play but with the older Fennelly on board that sharpens considerably – a presence akin to what Martin Johnson’s was to the English rugby team for so long. They look that bit less vulnerable when he opens the shoulders and stands square for a throw-in, “all elbows and knees” as his club colleague Henry Shefflin described it in an Irish Independent column last year.
No player in the game can clear a path for himself quite like it by the sheer force of presence alone.
His form is all the remarkable in the context of how little he actually trains or indeed plays these days because of the restriction that injury brings.
His career with Kilkenny is now into a 12th season but in that time he has amassed just 35 championship appearances.
Perhaps no player reflected the extended period of graduation required for a Kilkenny player when they were at the height of their powers from 2006 to 2012.
Fennelly joined the squad in 2006 but in the 18 games they played to complete four in a row by 2009, he started just three and came off the bench in another six. For the other nine, he didn’t feature at all.
Despite being captain in 2009, the experience of being continually on the margins left him questioning whether he actually had a future as a Kilkenny hurler.
Yet by 2010 he was an All-Star and a year later the Hurler of the Year award followed with the recognition of the influence he was having over Kilkenny and the game in general.
Laser surgery on his left eye undoubtedly helped his game around that time, allowing him to bin contact lenses that had been difficult to wear and helping his first touch in the process.
His collision to unhinge Shane McGrath in the 2011 All-Ireland final was a scene-setter which was followed by a barrelling run to produce Kilkenny’s first goal.
Physicality is something he seeks out. One of his former All-Ireland-winning club managers Maurice Aylward once likened him to Frank Cummins and suggested his preference is to seek out contact because he knows he is the likely winner.
When Austin Gleeson felt the full force of a Fennelly hit in the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final, he recalled taking two or three minutes to recover.
It prompted a swift change
in Gleeson’s aversion to gym work as a consequence in the
off-season that followed that defeat.
But with the raw physicality has come injury for Fennelly.
When he turned badly on his ankle in the 2012 league final win against Cork, it took a three-month chunk out of his season.
When he suffered a similar injury a year later the same stretch of recuperation lay ahead of him.
And all the time there is a back condition to manage, an arthritic condition with worn facet joints that can flare up with scarcely a moment’s notice.
Dealing with this ongoing issue and still putting in the performances that he does after such long lay-offs are minor miracles in hurling terms.
Since damaging ankle ligaments more than five years ago against Cork, Fennelly has turned out for just eight of the 36 league games that Kilkenny have played in five campaigns. In the last three campaigns he has turned out just twice.
His concentration of championship games is higher, 18 from 28, but rarely has there been a steady and sustained run crossing both competitions.
Ironically, he was playing his fourth successive championship game for the first time in five years when he pulled up in Thurles last August.
Yet, as he proved last weekend, Fennelly doesn’t need much game-time or training to re-adjust quickly.
Sometimes, as he explained a few years ago, the pain is so great that he can’t even swim or visit a gym. He must wait and allow the pain to subside itself before resuming.
Often, his preparation is restricted to stretching and straight-line running but as a lecturer in sports performance he has a keen appreciation of what his own body needs and has managed it carefully.
Look back at some of the bigger defeats that Kilkenny have experienced in the last few seasons and the common denominator has been Fennelly’s absence.
He was one of five out when Clare took them in the 2016 league semi-final on top of the All-Ireland final and Leinster semi-final with Wexford last month.
Even as far back as 2013, when they were previously turned over in Leinster by Dublin Fennelly was missing.
His importance, in those terms, can’t be overstated.