Friday 28 July 2017

Top Cats' absence sorely felt as back-up plan fails

Squad depth exposed but key quintet on way back

Aron Cunningham skips past Shane Prendergast during Clare’s victory over Kilkenny. Photo: Sportsfile
Aron Cunningham skips past Shane Prendergast during Clare’s victory over Kilkenny. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

We've been down this road before with Kilkenny picking through the forensics of a double-digit League play-off defeat.

That the white gowns and surgical gloves are being donned again point to the infrequency with which this happens. When Kilkenny lose it stands out, when they lose by that kind of margin it causes markets to shudder.

Five years ago they lost a League final to Dublin, recording one of their lowest scores, 1-7, in any major game of the modern era on the way to losing by the heaviest margin in a major decider since the 17-point 1976 Leinster defeat to Wexford.

This newspaper's analysis of that loss to Dublin asked the question, in headline, as to whether the Cats were a 'Busted Flush', having lost the previous year's All-Ireland final to Tipperary by eight points.

A sub-heading suggesting the 'Croker Choker', as the defeat was dubbed, exposed the myth of the Cats' invincibility rankled further.

That the opening paragraphs of the piece stressed how foolish it would be to write them off in expectation of the obligatory backlash was immaterial.

When All-Ireland title No 33 was duly landed there was no shortage of reminders about the language used to illustrate where they might have been four months earlier.

Mitigating

Then, as now, there were mitigating factors. For that 2011 Dublin defeat Henry Shefflin, Michael Fennelly, Tommy Walsh and Aidan Fogarty were all missing, while JJ Delaney limped out with an injury. Eoin Larkin was sent off just before the break.

Sunday's absentee list may not have been as decorated but in terms of value to the current Kilkenny team it is just as incalculable.

Think back to the second half of last year's All-Ireland final and the influence that some of those missing on Sunday had.

Fennelly and Larkin were key drivers, Conor Fogarty has grown in stature as an industrious midfielder over the last two years while Colin Fennelly, though not as prominent last September, still chipped in with an important point and had already hit 3-5 in this campaign.

Jackie Tyrrell limped out with a hamstring injury, and if he is to miss another significant block of training, his prospects of nailing down a place will suffer. Paul Murphy was arguably the biggest loss, given how ruthlessly the full-back line were exposed for those three first-half goals.

It's the first time since the retirement of Delaney after the 2014 Championship that Kilkenny have looked so vulnerable under a high ball.

Clare didn't re-invent the wheel here by raining down ball after ball on the broad-shouldered John Conlon and the 6ft 6in Darach Honan, who has been resurgent in recent weeks. Joey Holden was in the eye of a storm and with no Tyrrell or Murphy to get the ship to shore, Kilkenny drifted.

In 2012 Galway managed to isolate Joe Canning successfully for the first half of the Leinster final and reaped dividends. But Kilkenny were more authors of their own downfall this time.

Twice goalkeeper Eoin Murphy advanced off his line to lend support in pursuit of a dropping ball but got his wires crossed and the Cats were punished. Murphy stayed on his line after that but the conviction of Paul Murphy's play and his presence around the square under those breaking balls were palpably missed in those moments.

Paul Murphy has been, indisputably, the best defender in the game since his breakthrough in 2011, four All-Stars in five years proof of consistency and an eye-catching sense of how to read the game. His game may not be geared towards out-and-out full-back play but his work covering in front of and behind the man beside him, has been a pillar of Kilkenny's defensive strategy in recent seasons.

Having to supplement Cillian Buckley to midfield also robbed the defence of one of its most formidable components, the perfect screen.

At the other end the attacking dependency on TJ Reid shines brightest through statistics. In the six games that Reid has played in this year's League campaign (he sat out the six-goal rout of Offaly in the quarter-final) he has scored 2-61 from 6-113 in total, a return of almost 51pc. By comparison Patrick Horgan's figures are 39pc for Cork (3-43 from 10-111) across a similar quota of games, while David Treacy is 37pc for Dublin, again from the a six-match spread.

Richie Hogan had one of his least conspicuous games but his cause wasn't helped by the sometimes over-zealous policing by Oisin O'Brien, which has been in keeping with the trend of different terms of engagement when it comes to shackling Kilkenny. Hogan was surely entitled to more frees than he got.

As he smiled and shook hands with a grim-faced Davy Fitzgerald on Sunday evening, Cody's thoughts would not have sought to source too much comfort from who wasn't there.

He won't like losing but every now and again it does no harm for the radiators to be bled in such an invasive manner. Even for champions. Their response to defeat has inevitably been to win the next competition they contest, that 2010 All-Ireland final/2011 League final being the exception.

At full strength Cody surely still possesses the strongest one to 15 that any manager can field. After that, though, the debate starts, with questions being asked about Kilkenny's strength in depth.

There isn't always a direct correlation between U-21 and senior success but a trio of successive defeats to Wexford in the Leinster Championship paints its own picture, and this League has not thrown up as many viable options as Cody might have hoped for.

James Maher showed some early promise, Robert Lennon had a decent game against Tipperary, Diarmuid Cody was a solid addition around midfield while he was there and Liam Blanchfield has obvious potential.

Perhaps there is nothing to be read into Cody's sparse use of substitutes during this campaign. He did after all point out after the Tipp game the need to give players a "full" game when in experimentation mode. But even as the game was slipping away on Sunday Kilkenny did not make a tactical substitution until the 55th minute when Blanchfield replaced Conor O'Shea.

Stitch that missing quintet and Kilkenny are a different team. But they can't afford to dig down too deep into their reserves again.

Irish Independent

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