Same league – different planet
Published 23/02/2013 | 04:00
We were just three days out from October last year when Brian Cody decided that a big kid with the easy movement of a lazy river might just be the key to winning the hurling All-Ireland.
Walter Walsh had not played a single minute of league or championship when Cody put him in the team for the final replay against Galway. It was the evening of Friday, September 28 in Nowlan Park. Walsh himself would later admit: "I had to look at the team-sheet twice."
Of course, Cody isn't known as a reckless sort and, when young Walter fired the opening point from play that Sunday, his selection instantly shed all sense of gamble. He would finish the day with 1-3 to his name and some man-of-the-match crystal for his parents' sideboard.
Such events can make you wonder if the hurling calendar is just some kind of dilatory exercise running in denial of a central understanding that, when they are properly wired for combat, Kilkenny always win.
Henry Shefflin, after all, did not puck a ball in last year's Allianz National Hurling League. The day they devoured Cork in the final, he was sitting in the Kinane Stand in Thurles alongside Noel Hickey, Richie Power, Michael Rice and Aidan Fogarty.
Where was Walter that afternoon? Probably as far from Cody's thoughts as Ger Aylward or Ollie Walsh or John Power or any number of the brightest U-21s drawn from a great labyrinth of talent in the county.
The kid would subsequently put a big hand up during Kilkenny's march to that grade's All-Ireland final, but it was his form in training with the seniors that – ultimately – caught the manager's eye. He was a September child, in other words. A lottery-win, unearthed just as the year was ending.
Arguably, Kilkenny's best forward in last year's league was Matthew Ruth. He started six of their seven games, scoring 5-9 from play. Yet, Ruth did not get a single championship start and, after the Leinster final drubbing by Galway, his remaining game-time in the All-Ireland campaign amounted to 18 minutes.
Kieran Joyce got just two starts in the league but, by year's end, had firmly supplanted Richie Doyle from Kilkenny's starting 15, despite Doyle being touted by many of us media professors as being among the 'finds' of early season (which he still was, incidentally).
Under Cody, Kilkenny have mastered the art of constancy in a frenetic world. They don't specifically target the league because to do so would be to imply that there are days when equivocal hurling might, notionally, be acceptable.
Seven different counties have won league titles during the last two decades but, removing Kilkenny from the equation, only Tipperary in 2001 have managed to collect the Liam MacCarthy Cup that same year.
Waterford looked hugely promising when beating Kilkenny in the final of '07, but their summer then essentially ran dry through something tantamount to exhaustion. Galway were bouncing off the ground when dispatching Cork in the final of 2010, but then had the misfortune to lose an All-Ireland quarter-final to Tipp by a single point.
That year probably represented the high watermark of John McIntyre's time in charge of Galway. Yet, when his race as manager was run, a league title felt like flimsy reward for the time put in.
Defining judgments are seldom made in late spring as the findings of league routinely prove slippery and unreliable. Through the coming weeks, all manner of deductions will be drawn about glasses being either half-full or half-empty, yet none of it will necessarily carry much relevance to September.
"When we won the league, we felt it would set us up for a big assault on the championship," recalls McIntyre of Galway's 2010 victory. "But our form in the early rounds then was nothing to write home about. We got it hard against Wexford down in Nowlan Park, it took us two games to get over Offaly and then Kilkenny beat us comfortably in the Leinster final.
"So you wouldn't want to be carried away by winning the league."
All three top-division games carry palpable appeal this weekend, not least tonight's meeting of Cork and Tipperary at Pairc Ui Rinn. Jimmy Barry-Murphy has wintered to an unfamiliar sound-track in the south, all manner of rumour circling about a dressing-room in which no one can agree upon as much as the temperature for the showers.
The losses of Darren Sweetnam to rugby and Eoin Cadogan and Damien Cahalane to football certainly represent a serious hit in a county looking to harvest off a habitually barren under-age crop. Cork, after all, have not won a minor All-Ireland since 2001 nor an U-21 since '98.
So Barry-Murphy is tasked, essentially, with masterminding some kind of miraculous shortcut to success. His charisma and intelligence – not to mention the traditional view that, "like mushrooms", great Cork teams can surface almost overnight – will counsel against any blithe dismissal of a project that looked to be progressing extremely well until last year's league final.
Perhaps that feeling of Kilkenny teeth cutting into their flesh might now moderate any appetite for another league campaign running all the way to May, but Cork have not won this trophy since beating Waterford in the final of '98. And, yes, that was JBM's first silverware in his previous life as a Cork manager.
He certainly faces different puzzles to those confronting Eamon O'Shea, for whom Thurles Sarsfields' recent defeat to Kilcormac-Killoughey might not necessarily have been a bad thing.
No championship defeat in modern history chastened Tipp quite like last August's humiliation against Kilkenny. And there was certainly something pointed in county secretary Tim Floyd observing in his annual report that county players had "a duty to carry the blue and gold jersey on their back even when off the field".
The stories of how some Tipp players conducted themselves socially on occasions last year have, by now, become such portraits of dysfunction we must surely dismiss the more lurid as apocryphal.
Yet, O'Shea has a job on his hands convincing the Tipp public that the All-Ireland champions of 2010 can summon anything close to the humility we already take as a given with the champions of 2012. Tipp invariably take the league seriously, but haven't made a final since that humdinger against Kilkenny that went to extra-time in '09.
The meeting of Clare and Waterford in Ennis seems to speak of two teams moving in different directions. Davy Fitz's evangelical passion for the game comes allied to a deceptively sharp tactical understanding and, with two All-Ireland U-21 crowns mined in four years, Clare may have the armoury for another golden generation.
Survival in the top division will be Fitzgerald's minimum demand from this league and, to do so, he will consider tomorrow's a must-win game.
Likewise, Michael Ryan must be targeting opponents Waterford meet in the first round of the Munster championship, but John Mullane's retirement punches a gaping hole in his hopes for the season, as does the absence of Stephen Molumphy and Philip Mahony.
No question, Kilkenny's trip to Salthill tomorrow is the marquee fixture of the weekend and one Anthony Cunningham will be keen produces a compelling Galway performance.
After previous All-Ireland final appearances in '01 and '05, the county slipped back into anonymity, like a rail traveller found bluffing in first class.
So Cunningham needs his players to pick up where they left off last season and a stripey scalp would offer the perfect start. Yet, even this early in the calendar year, Kilkenny don't often make for supine visitors. They've reached eight of the last 11 league finals, winning six. Cody doesn't pretend this stuff is poker. He just sends out a team to win and, usually, they do. Last season, Kilkenny's only league defeat was in Cork and the sheer tenor of vengeance subsequently taken on JBM's boys in the final was breathtaking. In a sense, losing to historic old foes at Pairc Ui Chaoimh in March seemed to set them at perfect heat for a rematch six weeks later.
Yet, McIntyre suspects that Kilkenny may have paid a little for the effort invested in last year's league. Suggesting that the scale of their success sometimes creates an illusion of "robots", he believes their subsequent hammering in the Leinster final identified a team perilously close to breakdown.
"We all look upon Kilkenny as machines, but the reality is they were nearly gone last summer," he says. "To be beaten so much by Galway in the Leinster final, a group of players that has won so much, nothing left to prove ... they must have come very close to almost throwing their hat at it.
"You think about them coming together the following week for training, fellas like Tommy Walsh and Henry and JJ Delaney and Jackie Tyrrell and Brian Hogan, they have parked their lives for the sake of Kilkenny hurling.
"They've been part of the greatest team of all time, multiple All Star winners who've done it all and they're after being wiped off the field by Galway, a team you know you're probably going to have to beat to win the All-Ireland, they must have had to look deep into their souls to keep the show on the road.
"And it's a tribute to them that they did, given how long they've been at the top. Because they were in trouble against Limerick then in the first half of the All-Ireland quarter-final. They were rocking. So Kilkenny were really vulnerable.
"But they're just men who thrive on winning. And that's a great attribute for any team, to have that innate hatred of losing."
Inevitably, they start 6/4 favourites to be crowned league champions again on May 5 and if, for others, success in the competition will be defined by different things, nobody will exactly be coasting these coming weeks.
Even Division 1B carries the sheen of authentic competition, with Dublin desperate to make up for an underwhelming second album after their 2011 league triumph, yet likely to have to work hard for victories against Limerick, Offaly and Wexford, whatever about Antrim and Carlow.
Bottom line, it will be good to watch the hurling year wipe sleep from its eyes this weekend as we monitor the gentle push of new players, new stories into the national consciousness.
Yet, when all is said and done, logically only one team could roll through the next seven months, then pull a Walter Walsh from the sky. In other words, it's still Kilkenny's world.
But for a February throw of the dice? Galway's league.