Thursday 29 June 2017

Never write them off but Cats must evolve to meet challenge

Brian Cody faces a huge balancing act to get Kilkenny back to form, says Jamesie O'Connor

E leven years ago, in May 2000, two weeks before we were due to meet Nicky English's Tipperary in the Munster championship, Clare travelled to Gowran to play Brian Cody's Kilkenny in our final warm-up match. It was Ger Loughnane's sixth and final year at the helm and while the training had always been notoriously tough and gruelling, the management had never failed to present us in anything less than prime shape for the championship. That particular year, however, Loughnane got it badly wrong.

After a dismal ending to the League, we embarked on a regime that could best be described as punishing. In hindsight, the last thing an ageing team like ours needed, especially one with such serious mileage on the clock, was further hardship. But Loughnane felt we needed to train more ferociously than ever and it was penal stuff in the six weeks building up to the championship.

So, overtrained, leaden-footed, and with many players well below their optimum fighting weight, a Kilkenny team hell bent on laying down a marker for the year ahead, blew us away. Needless to say, despite doing almost nothing in the intervening period in an effort to get the energy levels back up, Tipp put us to the sword two weeks later.

Unfortunately from our perspective, while all the warning signs were probably there, by the time the reality of where we were at dawned after Gowran, it was too late. Our season inevitably ended with a tired and lacklustre performance in Páirc Uí Chaoimh; a paltry return given the levels of effort and energy we had expended. Yet a year later, with the batteries recharged, and pretty much the same panel of players, we were arguably back in the top three teams in the country.

In that respect, the one positive Kilkenny can take out of last weekend is that the reality check and wake-up call administered by Dublin came this early in the season. You could argue that the writing was on the wall for Kilkenny throughout the League, or even that the cracks started to appear long before that, going back to the three League defeats they suffered last season. Certainly, the manner of the loss to Galway, the second-half collapse and near defeat to Cork and the draw with Dublin earlier this year, all provided evidence that this side were not the force of old.

What couldn't have been foreseen was the absolutely abject nature of the display last weekend. I know Dublin's performance had a lot to do with it, but two scores from play in a national final in Croke Park under Brian Cody's watch -- that's something that under normal circumstances just doesn't happen. Jackie Tyrrell summed it up last week when he described it as the worst performance he was ever involved in with Kilkenny.

As a highly respected player and former captain, it was interesting to hear his take on events. In the wake of a defeat like that, a player's first instinct is invariably to point the finger elsewhere. Tyrrell, however, was looking in the mirror. When he spoke about the players having allowed their standards to slip, and that leadership was non-existent on the field last Sunday, you felt that as well as reflecting on his own performance, he was also articulating the views of his fellow senior cabinet members within the squad.

That level of honesty from the players is an essential ingredient if Kilkenny are to turn things around. Getting the key injured players -- Michael Fennelly, Richie Power, Tommy Walsh and Henry Shefflin -- back into the side is another. The hurling qualities they bring are obvious, particularly given the scarcely credible lack of ball-winning ability in the middle third of the field, which has been an ongoing cause for concern. What's more important is the experience, drive and leadership they possess; qualities notably lacking last weekend.

On the last two occasions when Kilkenny have taken a major hit, in 2001 and 2005, Cody had no hesitation in wielding the axe and taking the hard decisions about jettisoning older players for newer ones. Those decisions, however, were made easier by the type of talented, hungry and athletic player he had coming through -- Derek Lyng, Martin Comerford, Tommy Walsh and Eoin Larkin to name but a few. Whether he has the same abundance of riches at his disposal now is debatable. The jury remains out on many of the newer panel members. David Herity and Paddy Hogan did their championship chances no harm last weekend but both Colin Fennelly and Matthew Ruth learned a harsh lesson and, excluding the injured JJ Delaney, were the only outfield players called ashore. John Mulhall, the only championship debutant last year, has failed to establish himself despite

some impressive cameos and neither TJ Reid nor Richie Hogan have progressed or shown the desired consistency Kilkenny supporters would have anticipated.

How they respond to it all is an intriguing proposition. Cody, Martin Fogarty and Michael Dempsey face a delicate balancing act now and their greatest challenge ever, over the rest of this summer, to get the team playing anywhere close to the standards they have reached in August and September over the last four or five years.

From my experience, Kilkenny have to train smarter and not necessarily harder. Cody's natural instinct may be to throw sweat at the issues and problems, flog the players and return to the formula that has served them well in the past. Yet, in light of what the majority of his players have been through, curbing some of those instincts may well serve the cause better. That's likely to involve some measure of creativity in terms of finding a way to freshen things up without compromising on the work that needs to be done, or losing the essence of what has made this team the force it was at its peak.

When they had to in the past, Kilkenny have evolved to meet the challenges presented. With the vultures circling and the smell of Kilkenny blood wafting in the Leinster championship air, they may need to do so again. Time will tell whether the hunger and appetite remains, something we'll have to wait to discover until the serious questions are asked later in the summer. But they still look certainties to make the Leinster final so it may be premature to write their obituary just yet.

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