Secret recipe for Cat's super success
Published 16/06/2010 | 05:00
Kilkenny. Remember them? The team that claimed a fourth All-Ireland title last September, lost a few league games in the spring, went out of contention early and then disappeared without trace.
The radar has been unable to pick up any movement from them for at least two months.
As their main rivals in Leinster and beyond switched on their engines and revved up into overdrive, Kilkenny have been able to maintain priceless anonymity in a season during which the spotlight will be firmly fixed upon them.
This week they reappear out of the undergrowth as they start out on the road towards Liam McCarthy once more against Dublin.
No team has achieved the feat of five successive All-Ireland titles in either of the GAA's main competitions.
And as Kilkenny bid to write themselves into the history books once more and leave an indelible mark, we look at the most critical elements of their success over the last four years and how it will stand to them in the months ahead.
1 Coping with pressure
If they didn't buckle under the pressure of the closing minutes of the 2009 All-Ireland final when their fourth title was on the line, then they never will.
Two points down in the 62nd minute, Henry Shefflin knew, when he stood up to that penalty, that it had to be a goal. And he delivered. That's the character of the players involved.
Over the last four years they have rarely been under such pressure, but when it was put up to them, they survived.
Every time a team has come close to turning them over they've had an answer: Cork in the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final, Galway in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final, Clare in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final.
When they were faced with the challenge in 2008 of becoming the first Kilkenny team to win three All-Irelands in a row they didn't shirk it and enjoyed their greatest sequence of performances.
2 New talent
There's never much required, but each year Cody has still been able to make a change in one or two positions that reflects how Kilkenny's team-selection policy doesn't stand still.
Last year it was Micheal Rice nailing down one of the midfield berths after just three starts and five previous appearances as a substitute. This season John Mulhall has emerged as a credible candidate to make a breakthrough somewhere in attack on the back of solid performances in the league.
But more likely to step up is TJ Reid who is team captain but, remarkably, has never started a championship match before, despite seven appearances off the bench, the most impressive of which was his cameo in the second half of the 2008 All-Ireland final against Waterford. In what other hurling county could that happen?
3 Consistency of selection over four years
Nothing reflects Kilkenny's dominance more than the consistency of selection they have had in their four successive years of All-Ireland triumphs. In 18 games from the 2006 Leinster semi-final against Westmeath to the All-Ireland final against Tipperary last September, they have used just 31 players.
That's an economy of selection that no other team has been able to come close to replicating.
Shefflin and Tommy Walsh, two of the greatest players in this or any era, are among the trio who have started each and every one of those 18 games. Eoin Larkin has also been an ever-present name in Brian Cody's team's selections.
Eddie Brennan would join them if it wasn't for the fact that he missed the first of the 18-game sequence against Westmeath, and Martin Comerford can claim involvement in all 18, but he was dropped for the All-Ireland final last year before coming off the bench to score the all-important winning goal. Jackie Tyrrell has been another pillar of consistency for Kilkenny over the course of the last four years, starting in all bar one of those 18 games.
His versatility has taken him from corner-back to half-back and centre-back to midfield in that period.
Michael Kavanagh and JJ Delaney are just off the pace in terms of appearances in the unbroken sequence of victories, missing two each.
Delaney, of course, was cruelly put out of the 2006 All-Ireland success over Cork due to a knee ligament injury.
The pack closed in on Kilkenny last year, with Dublin just six points off the pace, Waterford five and Tipperary leading until the critical moments of the All-Ireland final.
Tipperary's disappointing showing in their opening championship match this year has pin-pricked the expectation somewhat that they are ready to step up to the mark. Without striking a ball in anger, Kilkenny's favouritism for a fifth All-Ireland title has hardened.
On all known form they still look to have Waterford, Cork and Galway at arm's length by about five points. No one else will come close.
5 The manager
Cody is still the man for the hard calls. Last year Comerford was left out of the side for the All-Ireland final.
Yet it was Comerford who came off the bench and delivered the killer blow to Tipperary.
Now Comerford is fighting for his place again.
Whatever has to be done for the team will be done by Cody. No where has there been evidence of favouritism from the sideline.
James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick's failure to regain his place last season -- he started just once after a long winter illness -- is another case in point.