Monday 24 July 2017

Is the aura disappearing?

A crash has always followed a boom in Kilkenny and, judging by their defeat to Dublin, Brian Cody has a tough job to prevent history repeating itself

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody watches on as Dublin receive the Division One league trophy alongside Richie (left) and Paddy Hogan.
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody watches on as Dublin receive the Division One league trophy alongside Richie (left) and Paddy Hogan.

Christy O'Connor

If you examine the history of great Kilkenny teams over the last four decades, one discernible trend has been very evident; after the boom has always come an unmerciful crash.

Having reached five successive All-Ireland finals, Kilkenny were seeking to become the first side to win six successive Leinster titles in 1976 when Wexford hammered them by 17 points in the provincial final.

When Kilkenny were going for three All-Irelands in-a-row in 1984 -- and again in 1994 -- they were emphatically taken out by Wexford and Offaly. When the Cats were on that three-in-a-row trail again in 2004, Wexford beat them in Leinster while Cork blitzed them in the second half of the All-Ireland final.

Although Kilkenny were beaten by eight points in last year's All-Ireland final, the defeat wasn't as dramatic because it was an excellent match. Last Sunday's result though, was more comparable to the crashes of 1976, 1984, 1994 and 2004. For now, the fact that the crash came in the league is Kilkenny's main solace against the trends of history.

In the aftermath of last Sunday's defeat, Brian Cody called his squad into the warm-up area. Cody's assessment was honest and succinct. In short, he said that Kilkenny had to return to their ways of working harder than anyone else.

Theme

That theme was the prevalent topic of discussion among the players over a few drinks last Sunday night, before it was made public by Jackie Tyrrell last Wednesday. Tyrrell said that Kilkenny's standards have been "slipping".

"You'd be hoping over the next week that we'll have bruising sessions," said Tyrrell. "That's the only way to get it back and really try to put an intensity in training and get back up to where we were."

Teams struggling for form always return to that belief, but it doesn't always necessarily work for sides with high mileage. The Clare team of the 1990s played with Kilkenny's aggression and trained at the tone and tempo they expected to play at. But as Clare discovered in Ger Loughnane's final years, there is a finite life to such an approach, especially when the leading players are pushing on.

Tyrrell's comments brought to mind a story after the Cats' 2004 All-Ireland final defeat to Cork, when former Kilkenny player John Power argued that the intensity of Cody's training in the previous month robbed the team of any freshness and killed their chances. Kilkenny had struggled that summer for consistent form and they'd prepared for that final with ferocious internal matches.

For now, Cody has two key questions to answer. Firstly, does he go down that road again in an attempt to rediscover lost form?

Secondly, does he give the greatest team of all time another chance or begin the process of restructuring immediately?

Cody wasn't afraid to tear down the team that won the 2000 All-Ireland or to reshape the team that won back-to-back All-Irelands in 2002 and '03. In both cases, his judgment was vindicated, but he doesn't have the same foundation blocks at his disposal now. Last Sunday, Kilkenny only had one recognised forward on the bench in John Mulhall.

For years, the theory that Kilkenny's second team would beat most other teams in the country was never entertained by serious observers -- especially in Kilkenny. It was first exposed during last year's league when Cody rested Henry Shefflin, Michael Kavanagh, Eddie Brennan, Martin Comerford, Derek Lyng and Noel Hickey. Yet, Mulhall was the only player to make his championship debut last summer. And his four appearances all came off the bench.

Kilkenny had nearly as many big names sidelined this spring, but Colin Fennelly was the only new player who really impressed. Paddy Hogan was Kilkenny's best player by a distance last Sunday, but his claims for a starting place have long been signposted.

Although winning games has always been Kilkenny's objective during the league under Cody, this year's campaign was still one huge auditioning process. He tried four different centre-backs, five centre-forwards and nine midfielders in seven different pairings.

The team Kilkenny started last Sunday was one of the strangest Cody has ever selected: Noel Hickey at corner-back, TJ Reid at midfield, James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick at wing-forward and Matthew Ruth at centre-forward. Ruth had made his name with Kilkenny underage teams as a poacher and he'd bagged 2-1 against Dublin in April. He's such a specialist corner-forward that his club, James Stephens, would hardly contemplate playing him at No 11.

The messages have been scrambled all year, but if Kilkenny didn't treat the league seriously, that's certainly the first time that's happened under Cody. Kilkenny's physical regime has been tougher than ever this season, with far more running. Some players had conveyed to management their concern at the lack of hurling work done, but has that been management's decision to keep them fresh? Or are they just excuses? That's certainly something Cody or Kilkenny have never made in the past.

Still, it's been an untypical Kilkenny so far. At one stage of the Walsh Cup final in February, they trailed a Dublin team with just 18 players togged out by 15 points. A team routinely used to administering punishment beatings has also clearly been lacking that killer instinct.

Forensically analysing Kilkenny though, the slippage has been gradual. The 2-21 they conceded to Galway in the 2010 league was the highest total Kilkenny ever coughed up in Nowlan Park under Cody. During the four-in-a-row, they lost only five league games; they've now lost five league games in the last two seasons.

It could be argued that the slide really began in the 2009 All-Ireland final when the 0-23 they conceded against Tipperary was the most they'd ever shipped under Cody in the championship, while they had never allowed so many clear-cut goal chances under his watch in an All-Ireland final.

Tipp's forward play is all about movement and interchanging and they had the confidence and pace to discomfit Kilkenny last September by creating an environment that was almost alien to them. The Cats are normally able to compress the space to make Croke Park appear like a soccer field, but their defenders couldn't play a zonal system with Tipp's fluidity up front.

Very few teams have Tipp's attacking creativity but they have shown the way to attack Kilkenny's strengths; Dublin's intelligent forward movement totally discomfited them again last weekend.

There are also other technical areas though, that Kilkenny need to address. Unlike other teams, Kilkenny don't have a preprogrammed alternative to route-one puck-outs. Aerial dominance has been a primary source of Kilkenny's power for most of Cody's reign, but that was first taken from them by Tipp in the 2009 league and All-Ireland finals. They were physically bullied again last Sunday when Kilkenny's forwards won just one high ball.

Some senior players have consistently expressed concern on their puckout tactic to management over the last two years. In the 2009 league, Donal Og Cusack was picked off from a couple of short puckouts and Kilkenny's punishment was devastating. One Kilkenny player gloated in the dressing-room afterwards that Cork were "too proud to change". But one of his team-mates retorted: "Are we too proud to change?"

With Kilkenny's attack no longer stockpiled with big men who can win their own ball, do they change their strategy now?

Ultimately, though, everything comes down to hunger. Do Kilkenny have it anymore? Do they have the fuel in their legs?

Some of Kilkenny's subs loaded with All-Ireland medals have never known the hardship of defeat that made their main players. New players haven't driven the team forward in their absence like in the past, but Cody will still surely have to go for broke now. It's possible that he'll hand championship debuts to four, maybe five, players next month -- David Herity, Paul Murphy, Paddy Hogan, Colin Fennelly and Matthew Ruth.

Last year's All-Ireland final defeat proved the team needed major spinal reconstruction anyway. And with Henry Shefflin, Richie Power, Michael Fennelly, Tommy Walsh, John Tennyson and Aidan Fogarty to return from last Sunday's team, it might not take long for the blend to gradually return.

Tipp blew a hole in Kilkenny's aura last September and Dublin splintered it more last Sunday. Teams no longer dread playing Kilkenny anymore, but when they expectedly reach a Leinster final, the goal of becoming the first Cats side to win seven successive provincial titles will propel them forward.

For the first time in a decade, Kilkenny will only be setting their sights on Leinster. And then they -- and everyone else -- will know what's left in them afterwards.

Irish Independent

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