Kilkenny masters of the silent evolution
Published 05/09/2015 | 02:30
There isn't much in hurling that baffles Brian Cody but claims that he manages the greatest team of all time does.
Apart from the fact that the theory can neither be proved nor disproved, there's the obvious question: which Kilkenny team is referred to as 'the best'?
The one which won three All-Irelands in four seasons in 2000-03? The four-time winners in 2006-2009? The group that won three of the last four titles and which could make four from five tomorrow?
Of course there were overlaps between the various squads but, since Henry Shefflin departed earlier this year, the only one in the Kilkenny dressing-room who has been through it all is Cody himself.
Flick back to the 2006 season, which was the start of the All-Ireland four-in-a-row and you'll find that the only survivors from before that are Jackie Tyrrell, Eoin Larkin, Richie Power and Michael Fennelly.
By 2009, they had been joined by TJ Reid and Richie Hogan. That's a total of six players who were there before Kilkenny relaunched the latest drive when dethroning Tipperary in 2011.
Of the 16 players that featured against Waterford in last month's All-Ireland semi-final, 12 had made their championship debuts in 2011-14, leaving Fennelly, Hogan, Reid and Larkin as the long-serving fourball.
It would have been higher except for the absence of Tyrrell and Power due to injury. But even when that duo is included it's still less than half the team.
So when there's reference to "this being the best Kilkenny team of all time" - as is frequently the case - it misrepresents the reality of the situation, which is of an ever-evolving squad that continues seamlessly on its way, losing players and picking up others as it goes.
That explains why much of the reaction to the exit from the panel of so many big names between last year's All-Ireland win and the start of this year's Leinster Championship was hopelessly off-line.
Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney, Brian Hogan, Tommy Walsh, Aidan Fogarty and David Herity all retired and, as the departure lounge grew increasingly crowded with multi-All-Ireland winners checking out, it led to 'what now for Kilkenny' musings among the general public.
A superficial view prevailed that the exodus would leave Kilkenny somewhat threadbare. Surely they couldn't withstand the departure of so many big names?
Of course, those who knew the real situation saw that nonsense for what it was. With the exception of Delaney, none of the retired six would have seen much - if indeed any action - this year.
That even applies to Shefflin, arguably the greatest hurler of all time, who spent most of last year's championship on the bench.
Even on that wild, frantic afternoon when Kilkenny and Tipperary could not be separated after scoring a total of 4-50 between them in the All-Ireland final, he was called in for the final four minutes only.
He wasn't even first sub, as Cody despatched Fogarty into the attack 18 minutes earlier. Shefflin got 13 minutes in the replay and 18 minutes in the semi-final win over Limerick.
Such limited use in massive games scarcely augured well for his prospects of playing much this year, if he decided to stick around and take his chances.
The same applied to all of the others, except Delaney. And even the great JJ might have found life a whole lot tougher this year too.
He was rightly praised for his goal-saving hook on Seamus Callanan in the All-Ireland final replay last year but only he knew why he had been so far behind the Tipperary full-forward in the first place.
JJ celebrated his 33rd birthday last April, an age when it's getting increasingly difficult to survive at full-back, a position which former Meath No 3 Mick Lyons once described as like being in the Mafia.
"It's kill or be killed," he said.
Delaney killed the ambitions of a great many forwards over the years but he obviously decided last December that it was time to join some others on the exit trail.
So while Kilkenny were somehow regarded as heading for transition this year, it was never the case. The evolution process had taken care of that. The difference this time was that six very well-known players had all left within a few months of each other, which was always going to attract quizzical looks from an outside hurling world, which was hoping it might destabilise the empire.
Evolution is, of course, part of every panel but Kilkenny do it better than anybody else. Granted, the supply lines are always sound but there's more to it than that.
Cody wrote in his autobiography that, in his experience, a key principle in maintaining consistency in a squad was to base it on spirit, drive and determination.
"If they're all in place within the squad, you don't need to have the same team on the pitch all the time. Others can adjust to the core principles and apply them as a group. That's what they've learned to do.
"So when their chance arrives, they are ready to take it, both as individuals and as part of the overall unit. They know what's expected and they know how to deliver it," he wrote.
That explains why he has never been reluctant to take a chance with a player. Indeed, Galway have painful memories of how Cody's instinct wrecked them in the 2012 All-Ireland final replay.
Walter Walsh, then aged 21, was brought in for his senior debut and scored 1-3 in a man-of-the-match display.
A fascinating aspect of the Kilkenny project under Cody is that they never seem to be in transition. It happens elsewhere and is usually accompanied by drops of varying degrees in performance levels but Kilkenny manage to maintain the highest-powered equilibrium while integrating newcomers into the system.
Even when Kilkenny dipped (by their standards) in 2004 and 2005, losing an All-Ireland final and semi-final to Cork and Galway respectively, changes were kept to a minimum.
Cody talked a lot of Kilkenny "being in transition" in early 2006, happy to let the opposition believe that they would not be a real force for a few seasons.
"Deep down, I never believed a word of it. I knew that with a few adjustments, we would pick up the pace very quickly," he wrote.
Bizarrely, much of the commentary at the time centred on how far Kilkenny had fallen well behind Cork, the 2004-05 All-Ireland winners.
By September 2006, Kilkenny were back as All-Ireland champions.
It was much the same in 2010 when Tipperary beat Kilkenny in the final. Once again, Kilkenny's demise was widely touted, yet they won the next two All-Irelands.
And when Clare won the 2013 title, their fresh approach was heralded as a new threat which Kilkenny would find hard to counteract.
And yet, tomorrow they are bidding to win the second All-Ireland since then. If they succeed it will be regarded seen as business as usual but, if they fail, it will be claimed that this is indeed a turning point.
But then that's the way it is for Kilkenny. They are either dominating hurling in a manner never previously seen or else they are being portrayed as being on the edge of decline.
Either way, Cody will react in the same way. If it involves celebrating an All-Ireland win, he will enjoy it for a while. And if Kilkenny lose, he will react as philosophically as he did with previous setbacks.
He will then be out on the Kilkenny championship circuit in the coming weeks, scouring the clubs for new talent and waiting for the Leinster Council to make the draw for the Walsh Cup which begins in January.
It's the Cody way.