Leaving no stone unturned in search of redemption
Cody taking radical approach in bid to add much-needed depth to Kilkenny squad
Published 19/03/2014 | 02:30
When the current captain Lester Ryan was called ashore with 10 minutes remaining against Dublin in Parnell Park on Saturday night, it ensured that the last remaining record of unbroken league service for a Kilkenny hurler in 2014 had come to an end.
Ryan had played every minute of all four Kilkenny games against Clare, Tipperary, Galway and Dublin until his number flashed up and Brian Kennedy was introduced in the 60th minute.
Kennedy has seen quite a bit of service himself over a hectic four weeks since the league began, having started and finished the previous three games.
But Ryan and Kennedy are the exception rather than the rule in Kilkenny so far this spring as two of only six players to have featured at some stage in all four games – Padraig Walsh, Cillian Buckley, Jonjo Farrell and Walter Walsh being the others to have seen action on all four weekends. Everyone else has had to be patient and wait until their name is called.
When Richie Power stepped in for the last seven minutes he became the 30th Kilkenny player to play a league match in 2014.
It has been a trawl and a transformation like never before by Brian Cody. Last week Jackie Tyrrell acknowledged that he had never witnessed such change in his time and admitted having some first-time conversations with new colleagues in the Kilkenny dressing room since returning to training.
It is a tacit acknowledgement that, when it came to it last summer, the squad just didn't have the depth of old and needed significant replenishment.
New selectors (Derek Lyng and James McGarry) have helped to trigger radical thinking to team selection for league games.
True to form, they are spreading the net wide and detaching somewhat from the principles of league team selection adhered to so often in the past, that a core of hardened players would always provide the framework for newcomers to come in and find their feet.
When Kilkenny stormed to the league title in 2009 with some of their most impressive performances as a team that spring, they used 29 players across eight games. After winning the three previous All-Ireland titles, the net didn't have to be cast so far, thus players like Tyrrell, John Tennyson, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan and Eddie Brennan were involved in all eight games in that campaign.
Even in 2011, when Kilkenny were picking up the pieces from their All-Ireland final defeat to Tipperary the previous September, the search wasn't required to be that extensive.
Not even a serious injury crisis towards the end of that league, which left them without several established figures, prompted more than 29 players, including three different goalkeepers, to be used in eight games.
Dublin turned them over in the final, but that 2011 league campaign was still kind enough to bed down Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly as big championship contenders later in the year.
For comparable change and experimentation you have to go back to the 2006 league, when 33 players featured in just seven games, 30 of whom started at least one game.
DJ Carey and Peter Barry were gone since the previous summer, so too was John Hoyne, so the 2006 league was a campaign that really cemented the future credentials of Richie Power, and Tyrrell and the development of Michael Rice and Michael Fennelly.
This time it's different. Newcomers have been thrown in at the deep end in this campaign without the same lifebuoys of experience bobbing around them.
Henry Shefflin has featured more than he has done at this stage of the season for eight years, but Tommy Walsh has twice been taken off at half-time – against Tipperary and Dublin – amid obvious concerns over his form.
Fennelly, Rice and JJ Delaney have yet to play a single minute, but that could change over the next few weekends.
Of the 11 that can be classified as newcomers, five have put their hands up higher than the rest for future inclusion. Kennedy, last year's U-21 captain, has shown himself to be composed in possession and despite being in the eye of the storm in the first half against Tipperary, he held his ground well.
Joe Holden has put in some good performance at wing-back while Padraig Walsh, Tommy's younger brother, has also advanced his cause in three and a half games.
Their progress will be particularly interesting as Kilkenny are unlikely to start Delaney, Kieran Joyce, Tyrrell, Brian Hogan and Tommy Walsh together again.
Up front only Ryan has had more game time than John Joe Farrell, who has been involved for all but 18 minutes of the four games.
By comparison the reigning All-Ireland champions Clare, with arguably the greatest breadth of talented players to choose from courtesy of three of the last five All-Ireland U-21 titles, have been more economic with their league selections to date using just 25 different players in four games and retaining the same type of strong core that bankrolled Kilkenny in the seven league titles they have won since 2002.
Four players – goalkeeper Donal Tuohy, David McInerney, Pat O'Connor and Pat Donnellan – have played every minute of every game so far.
Cian Dillon, Conor McGrath, Conor Ryan and Brendan Bugler have been substituted in the second half of one game each, John Conlon went towards the end of the first half the last day against Waterford, while Colin Ryan has also started each game but has been taken off twice.
It amounts to 10 players starting every game, with Tony Kelly and Cathal O'Connell also featuring four times.
That solid bank of familiarity through league games that Clare have enjoyed has been the hallmark of the Cats for so long. But circumstances change.
After just four league games there's not a stone left unturned in Kilkenny as they undergo their most radical transformation in years.