'Same old boring Kilkenny'
IT'S difficult to think of any other sport where a team setting out in pursuit of a peak never previously conquered would be presented as the warm-up act, not once but twice.
Bizarrely, that's where Kilkenny hurlers will find themselves tomorrow as they begin their All-Ireland five-in-a-row bid against Dublin at 2.0 at Croke Park. It will be followed two hours later by Galway against Offaly in the prime-time slot which, on TV, goes to Cork versus Limerick at Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
We're told it's caused by TV scheduling, although quite why any station (TV3 in this case) would want to feature Cork against a depleted Limerick as the prime-time attraction is a mystery.
Throw-in times and live TV may be no more than sideshows, but one suspects that if it were Tipperary, Cork, Galway or some others who were embarking on their championship adventure as four-time champions, they would let their displeasure at not getting top billing be known.
Kilkenny do things differently. Indeed, their response to the early start is characteristically pragmatic.
"Two o'clock. It's a bit earlier than usual alright. Better make sure we get there on time," said Brian Cody, with the demeanour of a man who would be happy to play at eight in the morning.
But then Kilkenny don't sweat the small stuff, opting instead to keep their eyes fixed on the prize rather than the colour of the tickets they're holding. Unlike quite a few others, some of whom haven't even established themselves as consistent big-time performers, you don't hear Kilkenny players expounding their theories as to why Gaelic games should be either semi of fully professional.
At an All Star function or tour, you don't see Kilkenny players wearing their success as a badge of arrogance. On the contrary, they exude humility. On a broader scale, Kilkenny do not pretend that there's anything more advanced or sophisticated about how they conduct their business, either on or off the pitch.
It's a personality trait that keeps them grounded in reality and leaves them brilliantly placed for the five-in-a-row attempt. For reasons that have a great deal to do with their manager and the respect he affords everybody who holds a hurley at any level, there's no danger of Kilkenny under-performing because of over-confidence.
That's one less thing for them to worry about in this most special of years. As of now, they can win a fifth successive All-Ireland and climb to a level never previously explored by any county in either code if they clear four fences erected by Dublin, Galway or Offaly, the survivors from the qualifiers/quarter-finals followed by the other All-Ireland semi-final winners.
Each will be treated with the same respect and, if Kilkenny are forced into the qualifiers, the exact same rules of engagement will apply.
The spoofing classes, who take their cue from perceived wisdom and like to read something deep and meaningful into everything, don't understand Kilkenny or their mindset. Kilkenny have dominated hurling for a decade because they have produced excellent players, worked exceptionally hard and never lost sight of who they are of what they are about. Presiding over it all has been Brian Cody, a manager who binds the constituent parts together while also accurately assessing when it's time to build for the future.
Kilkenny do things with maximum efficiency, but there's also a lovely simplicity to their approach. There's no great mystery to what they do, even to the point of their pre-match warm-ups, which are more straightforward than those of most of their opponents'.
In an age when it's evident that some trainers like to show off by putting together some flashy pre-match routines (tackle bags for hurlers, for God's sake!), Kilkenny concentrate on touch and timing. Cody's respect for (selector) Michael Dempsey's ability to get the team ready physically is well known, but then they live off results that have been pretty impressive for a long time.
Now they are heading into a crucial year when they are within touching distance of achieving something unique. While they have been the most analysed team in hurling over recent years, it's still surprising how so many people get them wrong.
For instance, it has been argued that Kilkenny's failure to reach the league final this year-- something that has happened only once in five seasons -- was part of a plan to conserve energy for the championship challenge ahead. It was anything but. Kilkenny were as committed to winning the league this year as last year but, in the end, they finished fourth in the table behind Galway, Cork and Tipperary, all of whom beat them.
"Of course, we wanted to win the league, but we dropped too many points to put ourselves in a position to challenge for a place in the final going into the last round. It wasn't a good league for us because we lost three games. We weren't happy with that but, on the plus side, the three games we lost were by narrow margins, so there wasn't that much wrong with our performances. We were competitive all the way, which was important," said Cody.
They lost to Tipperary and Galway by a point each and to Cork by two points. Of course, they were without Henry Shefflin and the Ballyhale Shamrocks contingent who spent their spring putting manners on Cork champions Newtownshandrum and Galway champions Portumna.
Kilkenny's departure from the league on April 18, followed by their nine-week wait for the Leinster championship, meant that all of their main rivals have had chances to assert themselves -- opportunities taken by Galway, who claimed the Division 1 title, and Cork, who stunned Tipperary in the Munster quarter-final.
Cody was in Thurles to see Galway win the league final against Cork and at Pairc Ui Chaoimh for the Cork-Tipperary game and came away with no sense that he saw anything new. "I say it every year because I mean it. There are five or six teams who can win the All-Ireland and they always include Cork, Tipperary and Galway. Nothing I have seen has changed that. I wasn't in the least bit surprised Cork beat Tipperary. The margin was a surprise, but not the result because Cork are a very good team. So too are Tipperary and I have no doubt they will react positively to what happened," he said.
Cork, Tipperary, Galway and Waterford are regarded as the biggest threats to Kilkenny's grand plan, but they're not looking in that direction yet for the simple reason that they haven't got over Dublin.
"If we're not right, we'll lose to Dublin. That's just the way it is. It's the same in the other game. League champions or not, Galway won't beat Offaly unless they're right. That's the way of modern hurling and it applies as much to us as to anybody else. There are some basics that never change and that's one of them," said Cody.
Together with Limerick, Kilkenny are the last of the 13 Liam McCarthy Cup contenders into action, which means they have had to rely on their own devices to get themselves ready. It's a well-worn path for Kilkenny but, inevitably, it leaves a question mark as to whether they can switch back on to the pace and power that saw them safely home against Tipperary last September.
As for the five-in-a-row attempt, it won't be mentioned anywhere in the vicinity of the Kilkenny dressing-room because there's no need to.
"You win titles by winning games one by one. Our first game is against Dublin, which has our full concentration because it's all that counts right now. That's the way we've approached every championship over the years and we're not going to change now," said Cody.
So while the rest of the hurling world look on Kilkenny's five-in-a-row bid with wide-eyed fascination, the central characters will have a deadpan look on their faces as they return to Croke Park tomorrow to begin the next phase of 'Operation History'.
So have they done anything different in the build-up to this special season? "Not especially," said Cody. "We've done what we've always done. Worked as hard as possible to get ourselves right. Same old boring Kilkenny really."