independent

Friday 18 April 2014

'We can't continue winning forever' - Michael Fennelly

Kilkenny driving force Michael Fennelly is plotting a back-door All-Ireland title but admits Cats' rivals are 'getting hungrier'

Hopes are high Michael Fennelly will return to Kilkenny's starting 15 for this Sunday's All-Ireland SHC quarter-final against Cork in Thurles
Hopes are high Michael Fennelly will return to Kilkenny's starting 15 for this Sunday's All-Ireland SHC quarter-final against Cork in Thurles

Michael Fennelly is explaining the thesis he is undertaking as part of his studies in University of Limerick for a masters in sports performance.

Sports science has begun to permeate deeply through the GAA, and especially Gaelic football, but to Fennelly (28), the surface has only been scratched in hurling and he is intent on making a much deeper incision.

So the thesis will focus on the information that GPS devices can deliver specifically for the hurler.

The range and patterns of movement, shorter and faster bursts, less running over 50 metres than football perhaps; the rise and fall of heart rates. All the knowledge required to profile the athleticism involved.

"There has been no science done in hurling and especially on GPS. There has been nothing ever published, so that has to be done," suggested Fennelly, who took on the course after leaving Ulster Bank.

Only once in his recall did Kilkenny wear the devices to garner information.

"I think we used it last year once for a game," he said. "I suppose it is getting time to use it and getting the equipment too because it is very expensive. You have to rent out those units. A lot of teams are looking into it more but the cost of it is stopping them."

If Fennelly does decide to profile his own movement as part of his analysis, the screen will inevitably register a series of long straight lines.

The juggernaut's preference for the direct route will quickly manifest through the medium of satellite.

Nothing underlined that more than his driving run through the centre to take a pass from Richie Hogan and fire home his first ever championship goal as injury-time approached at the end of the first half of the 2011 All-Ireland final.

Had the GPS device been attached to his back at that moment it would have captured a powerful 60-metre run from a deep position to break on to the play at considerable speed and establish a six-point lead.

It was classic Fennelly, not always the player he was but the player Kilkenny always sensed he could be.

And they have missed that type of penetration, which gave them such a foothold in this year's league final.

His career can be filed into two distinct sections, pre and post-2009, when he captained Kilkenny to their fourth All-Ireland in a row, albeit as a substitute.

Is it really as simple as that? It shouldn't be but it is because from 2010 Fennelly has been in a completely different place as a Kilkenny player, stronger, more forceful and far less dispensable than at any stage of his career.

As much as Kilkenny have missed the guiding hand of Henry Shefflin, they have also missed the power that Fennelly generates for them from midfield.

When he didn't fire in last year's drawn All-Ireland final, Kilkenny struggled. After his two-goal salvo from centre-forward against Tipperary in that Nowlan Park league final in May, his absence was felt in the subsequent games against Offaly and Dublin (twice).

For the first Dublin game there was anticipation that he would play, but in the desire to get himself right there was a reaction to the troublesome ankle injury sustained in a club match for Shamrocks against Clara the week after the league final.

Finally, he made it back into competitive action against Waterford last week and the push is on now to extract more from him against Cork on Sunday. Hopes are high he'll return to the starting 15 in this weekend's All-Ireland quarter-final.

But injury has been all too constant a companion in recent years. "It's the left ankle now. Last year it was the right ankle (when he turned awkwardly in the league final against Cork and missed the Leinster championship). I've had my fair share."

Like so many of his colleagues, his progress to the top table was initially slow and painstaking. Derek Lyng and his Shamrocks colleague James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick were first-choice midfielders when he came on the senior scene, not long after captaining the U-21s to All-Ireland success in 2006, and for the three seasons to 2009 he started just three games (Wexford in 2007, Offaly in 2008 and Galway in 2009) with four more appearances as a sub.

But within two years of that last substitute appearance in the '09 All-Ireland final he was Hurler of the Year.

Injury last year derailed him somewhat and this season is moving faster than any before.

"There is great enjoyment from it, though," he said. "It's a huge challenge.

"Tyrone won the All-Ireland a few years back and they played 10 games and had replays some weeks. They built on that. It's a huge team achievement in itself. It is exciting. We've played four games in a year in the past to win an All-Ireland. We're on our sixth game already and it's only a quarter-final stage."

He acknowledges that the dominance which Kilkenny once carried is not nearly as iron-cast now and willingly accepts that it couldn't go on forever.

"It can't continue realistically. It can't continue forever. Other teams are getting stronger and better and hungrier for success," he said.

"A lot of these younger players are more fearless and keen to achieve. It's just the way things go. We're not hurling any worse than last year. We have injuries but other teams are stepping up a bit more. We can't win forever so something will have to happen."

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