Plenty in reserve
Brian Cody and Kilkenny are just 70 minutes away from immortality after a slow start to the year in the league, writes Cliona Foley
IT LOOKED at odds with his usual 'win every game' ethos but back in the league this year there was a strong theory that Brian Cody and Kilkenny weren't trying too hard.
After seeing them lose an unprecedented three league games under Cody's management the conspiracy theorists were out in force. They reckoned that the heavily mileaged and highly decorated Cats were conserving all their energy for the summer, at which time they would press the turbo-boost button in their 'drive for five'.
In Cody's 12 years in charge, Kilkenny have won the NHL five times and in 2006 and 2009 scored impressive league and championship doubles. Last year's epic league final with Tipperary, remember, was a precursor for their equally mesmerising All-Ireland decider. Yet this season they lost league games to Tipp (1-14 to 0-13), Cork (1-13 to 0-18) and Galway (1-23 to 2-21).
That was one more league loss than in any other season of Cody's reign and, if you threw in their pre-season defeats by Offaly and Laois in the Walsh Cup and Shield, they had actually lost five competitive games before March was out.
Few believe that league success is even the first cousin of championship form and Kilkenny were certainly riddled with injuries and early-season absentees in spring. Yet it was still a significant drop in their usual league standard, with all hope of defending their NHL title sunk even before the penultimate round.
Could this have been a sign that the wheels were finally coming off the mighty black-and-amber wagon? In the run-up to Sunday's All-Ireland final, Cody has admitted that he could understand why people were rushing to judge them.
"Coming in from the league I'd say some people were saying, 'their time is up'," he conceded. "It wasn't like there was a master plan of 'to hell with the league' there or anything," the Kilkenny boss revealed. "We prepared similarly and we always want to do well in the league. We lost three games but we were in the hunt to win all three of those and it was never for lack of effort."
To many, Kilkenny's recovery this summer has been pretty convincing. After racking up 4-19 against the Dubs, beating Galway by seven and then whipping up another 3-22 exhibition against Cork, the question must be asked -- how did we ever doubt them?
Yet Cody himself still isn't happy. "We won well on the scoreboard against Dublin, who didn't play well but we didn't play particularly well either," he said. "We'd a huge amount of wides (17) against Galway, and although we created a lot of chances in the first half against Cork when we were very, very good, in the second half we weren't."
The latter, of course, coincided with the injury losses of Henry Shefflin and Brian Hogan and Cody does not exaggerate when assessing their season as being "not too smooth". However, his follow-up comment -- "but smooth is not all that important, either" -- is most revealing.
Two of last year's half-back line -- John Tennyson (cruciate) and Brian Hogan (hand) -- look likely to miss next Sunday's game and Shefflin's involvement in it is still unknown. But Kilkenny won't care who plays or how pretty it is, just as long as the job gets done. Cody does admit to fearing a backlash from Tipperary after last year's final.
"It could be motivation for them more than us because they'll say, 'we almost won it last year and we're going to finish it off this time.' That's understandable of course, we would have been in that situation ourselves down through the years," he acknowledged.
And what about the notion that Kilkenny only won thanks to a dodgy penalty decision? Cody bristled briefly, saying, "I haven't come across it and it never comes into my head at all because I don't think you ever win a match like that."
He stressed that he simply can't let his team be distracted by last year's nail-biter, or by their mounting casualty list and particularly all the five-in-a-row hype that is clearly visible on Noreside.
"Look, it's an inevitability that you're going to be beaten at some stage," Cody said. "It is going to end sometime, you just hope it's not this year.
"Your try and postpone it, you don't focus on things like that. I think there's motivation in the fact that you don't want to lose this thing anyway -- the thought of losing always gives you a real incentive to win."
So what of Sunday's opponents Tipperary? Was he surprised at their three-goal defeat by the Rebels in Munster?
"Definitely," Cody admitted. "But it probably was a good thing (for them), the way they turned it around. Sometimes a thing like that can just really get you sorted and their ride since, and the whole attitude of what they've done, was just superb.
"I would say they're one of the teams who've got a panel of 23 or 24 at least and any of those players could slot in there. Five of their starting 15 are U-21s and they've an outstanding U-21 team and it's obvious, with their minor teams coming through too, that Tipperary have a serious bunch of hurlers with huge depth.
"Seamus Callanan and these lads who've been on their substitutes' bench, they're outstanding hurlers and while I don't know who's going to start, whoever it is will be a serious challenge for us. The only way we can approach it is to be absolutely ready ourselves because if we're not we'll be slaughtered."