'I've a feeling that Kilkenny are starting to motor'
With the 'Drive for Five' hype long gone, Dermot Crowe finds three Kilkenny greats in a confident mood
AS he was leaving a Kilkenny training session before last year's All-Ireland final, John Power came across Joe Hennessy.
Both have seen plenty in their time but what they'd witnessed that evening verged on a mania that neither felt comfortable with nor reckoned would do Kilkenny any good. With all eyes in the ground on him, Henry Shefflin had managed to get through unscathed, to rapturous cheers. On one occasion he scored a point off his left side and the roar that went up rivalled the acoustics of a championship match day.
It didn't look or sound right, the crowd hysterical, feverish -- literally making a show of themselves. Five-in-a-row talk flowed in and out of large draughts and Shefflin's cruciate turned into a cocktail of endless gossip and speculation. When the day arrived and he took his first free they were watching again, every move and faint twitch, working themselves into a lather before he broke down and left the field. On Tuesday night last, a large crowd filled the main covered stand and overflow area at Nowlan Park, persuading the groundsmen to open access to the new seated area behind one of the goals. There may have been as many as 5,000 there, but nothing -- in size or emotion -- on the scale of last year.
The team still has a transfixing effect on its people -- they streamed in, old men, women, kids, all shapes and sizes, and the merchandise that went on sale outside the ground prompted a brisk trade. But there was none of the pregnant five-in-a-row expectation of a year ago. There was no chronic anxiety over Henry. Instead Nowlan Park hummed with relaxed conversation and on the field the players in their assorted training shades went through the session without recourse to helmet protection -- it was a light wind-down, a series of striking and control drills, some forward moves.
Unusually for Kilkenny, they have conducted some of their sessions behind closed doors, seeking privacy to devise ways and means or reversing last year's disappointing finale. That is another door closed to distraction and public access but if there were lessons learned last year then one was surely that their preparations should not become a kind of soap opera. "Ah sure, really the training sessions turned into a carnival to a degree," admits Power, "people going in to see was Shefflin right, it was a massive distraction. People knew it was happening at the time but what could you do? It was the talk of the county at the time; was he going to be fit, was he going to play?"
And now, with injuries not nearly as prominent, there is a strange calm ahead of a match against a rival as strikingly defined as Tipperary. Power talks of the build-up being "stress-free" and while he is -- off the field at the end of a long day's work -- not the fretting type, this is an agreeable pre-match atmosphere which he feels serves Kilkenny well. He has a comforting sense of what is coming down the tracks. There is nothing rational to this other than a hunch or a kind of psychic feel that a big Kilkenny performance is on the way.
"Actually as the week goes on I am getting more confident. I don't know, I have a funny feeling that Kilkenny are starting to motor, the minds are in the right place. I always felt we'd win in 2006 even when we were without JJ (Delaney). I went into Kilkenny to do an interview on the Saturday evening and was talking to a few fellas on the street, and I knew we were going to win; it was like it was in the air, everyone was keyed into the same frequency of winning. Like, people in Kilkenny, they are not forgetting, either, that Tipp are All-Ireland champions and we are going in as underdogs, or the mileage on the clock.
"They are approaching it as the last big show, for this team; they are all shoving on. In fairness, they are after putting in a lot of hurling; this is a golden opportunity, the icing on the cake, a great chance to get back after last year with all the injuries. The feeling is that the team didn't do themselves justice on the day."
Power bumped into Jimmy Doyle last weekend and it was a conversation that could hardly be avoided. "He summed it up great: Tipp are afraid of Kilkenny and
Kilkenny are afraid of Tipp as well. That's the scenario. Great respect, but, win or lose, I don't think either team will be devastated. My honest belief is that it will be very tight and unless the pace of Tipp is a major factor, if Kilkenny can't live with that . . . but I don't think they will let them open them up, whatever tactics and coaching they are working on.
"They went to Wexford and showed good form and I suppose people did sit up and take notice after the Leinster final, that they were intent on not just going away. Waterford came with the same tactics as Donegal last Sunday. Davy (Fitzgerald) was after getting discouraged by Tipp's win in the Munster final and wasn't going to let that happen a second day. And I think if Waterford were there for three weeks they weren't going to beat Kilkenny. So it is hard to read into that game and Tipp are similar on the other side. It is a hard match to read."
Shefflin hoovered up attention a year ago. On Tuesday night, he blended in with the pack, as any player would want to, having reclaimed normality. Jackie Tyrrell, bursting out of a Dublin number 13 shirt, looked lean, a thick rope of muscle. Last year Tyrrell made a number of desperate forays up the field trying to take the game to Tipperary in the latter stages. They have players on a mission. Kilkenny are a dangerous proposition the year after they lose an All-Ireland final, but they lost two back to back at the end of the 1990s, the second of those in Brian Cody's first year in charge. It has happened before, but they have also bounced back with a vengeance after losing the previous September -- hounding Cork in 2006, Offaly in 2000, Cork in 1992.
The 1993 winning captain, Eddie O'Connor, feels that the rivalry is an open chapter and the issue of supremacy is inconclusive. "Many people in Kilkenny feel we are still the champions. While Tipperary were better on the day last year and deserved to win, Kilkenny hadn't a full hand to deal with. Now you take out Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly of the Tipperary team, these are the kind of players Kilkenny were missing, and when you factor that in some people will feel that they are the real champions. You are much, much better off this year, much more low-key. Michael Rice didn't start the final last year and Tommy Walsh played with a shoulder injury and Brian Hogan was missing and you had injuries to Shefflin and (John) Tennyson."
O'Connor, a notoriously adhesive and combative hurler in his day, feels that the two teams are geared for "war" but he doesn't think it will get out of hand. "I read an article during the week that a lot of the Tipp players are heavier this year and it shows the amount of work they have put into it. I would expect a physical game but also a cracking game of hurling because there are so many good players.
"To me, it could be the game of a lifetime. It's really no-holds barred, winner-takes-all. Savage commitment from both sides. I am expecting a cracker. These two teams are six or seven points ahead of the posse. Kilkenny built a monster and Tipp are turning into a different version of that monster. Kilkenny are after raising the bar and Tipp raised it higher."
The beating inflicted by Tipperary last September, with four goals, might have looked like a watershed for Kilkenny -- up until then they hadn't been beaten in the championship since 2005. But O'Connor never saw it that simply. "Not really. Kilkenny will never be gone; they will be there or thereabouts. It would be one of Cody's greatest achievements if they do pull it off because a lot did write them off after last year's All-Ireland. Kilkenny are capable of a huge performance and will need to produce a big performance.
"I was amazed at the reaction even of some former players in Kilkenny. I read one who said they wouldn't even win the Leinster final after the league final defeat by Dublin. People were very quick to dance on their grave. But most people knew that when you are down five or six players you will struggle to win any final. Maybe the league final scoreline flattered Dublin."
Given the intense natural rivalry, fuelled by increasing physicality and some liberal refereeing, notably in the 2009 final, the possibility of an unruly affair can't be discounted. "You don't know -- maybe it could turn into a Cork-Meath football thing (their heated rivalry of the 1980s)," says Power. "When teams meet too often things can blow out of hand. But generally they are two good hurling teams. But it can spill over. That could be a factor."
And that intensity is only likely to increase in the short term. "I couldn't see any other team breaking in at the moment, maybe Dublin, but I don't think they are ready yet," Power continues. "Tipp are looked on as an up-and-coming team, but Kilkenny will be determined. And they have a lovely environment going into it -- basically, being written off. To a degree. They will have a real cut at it. And we have Henry. One of the greatest hurlers of all time. People in Kilkenny would love to see him win an eighth All-Ireland medal (on the field of play) as well, to separate him from the rest. Then again he is shoving on as well.
"The likes of Tyrrell, Noel Hickey etc . . . don't think they have doubts about their ability, it was a kind of a blip (2010 final) to a degree. They have such experience of big days that they have it down to a fine art. They know how to cope with it. Waterford (in 2008) didn't know how to cope with it, they thought they did, it is a different day like. Kilkenny will cope with that no problem, they are used to it and I think they will set the tone early for the game: what pace it is going to be played at, how much of the pitch they are going to give Tipp, and how much they will keep for themselves."
Kilkenny have been in 11 senior finals since 1998, winning seven, so last year's fall is cushioned by a spell of extravagant success. "It's not a novelty for Kilkenny to be in the final," says Fan Larkin, the James Stephens legend, and link in a three-generational family chain of Celtic Cross winners. "They are after winning so much. It happens all great teams; everyone is saying a defeat will be the end of that team. We have a couple of new chaps playing, a Murphy lad (Paul) and hopefully Colin Fennelly will be playing and a new goal man (David Herity). I expect a good hard match like Kilkenny and Tipp down through the years, you are hurling a traditional county and we wouldn't expect anything else and Tipp would be the same.
"I think we'll win. If I thought they were going to be bet I wouldn't go (laughs). There is not as much hype about our team like there was last year, everyone was on about five in a row like the Kerry football team. No one could see Kilkenny bet. No matter how good you are you come to believe some of it."
Power reflects on the Tipperary win over Dublin, a match many see as standing to them because of its intensity. But even that throws up an argument. "Four of their starting forwards were replaced, which is not ideal. It could give them a kick up the arse but it can also rob a player of a bit of confidence. They are a serious team, they're young, but I would have questions when you have to replace four of your starting forwards."
No more questions. The time has come for some answers.
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