Wounded Cats will be back for more
Cody has resources to restore lost pride
Published 10/11/2010 | 05:00
What now for Kilkenny?
While there was never any real doubt over Brian Cody's reign in Kilkenny, his reappointment for a 13th successive year will be accompanied by an edge not experienced in the county since the end of 2005.
One championship defeat in five years scarcely represents a crisis, but it will be interesting to observe how Kilkenny and Cody react to the new circumstances. He has always been a master at churning the panel, maintaining an evolution which meant there was never a year when several changes were required together.
That applied as much in victory as defeat, although they have had little experience of the latter. Six championship defeats in 12 seasons is an unparalleled record, but they end 2010 in the unaccustomed position of not holding either the All-Ireland or National League titles.
That hurts and will be a powerful driving force when they reassemble for training in January. The big question centres on how Kilkenny react to the All-Ireland final defeat. Will they regard it as a once-off, a day when the law-of-averages dictated that their winning sequence must end? Or will it lead to deeper soul-searching to see if there was more to it than that?
Cody has repeatedly scoffed at suggestions Kilkenny have so much talent that they could field two teams capable of beating most counties. They certainly have lots of excellent players but, as Tipperary proved in the last two All-Ireland finals, Kilkenny are not miles ahead of everybody.
Tipperary lost in 2009, but were not five points inferior to Kilkenny, no more than they were eight points superior this year. Still, Tipperary came right alongside Kilkenny over the last two years and have now edged ahead. However, it can't be helpful for Tipperary to have a change in management after winning the All-Ireland title because irrespective of how smooth the transition is, it will still lead to a change of atmosphere which could take some time to settle down.
One of the uncertainties surrounding Kilkenny is how they would cope without Henry Shefflin. He's facing another long recovery road and even if everything goes well he's unlikely to be fit to return until the championship.
There were worrying signs for Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final that, without Shefflin's guiding presence, the attack lacked the creative instincts required to work their way through problems. There was no lack of effort or courage, but there was a distinct shortage of subtlety in how they went about their business.
They played very much in straight lines and were unable to devise a pattern to unlock a Tipperary defence that grew in confidence as they realised that, without Shefflin, the Kilkenny attack were manageable.
In fairness to them, coping without Shefflin was a new experience. Cork were beaten by the time he limped out of the semi-final, so his absence made no real difference. They had bargained on being without him for the final, only to see him recover to the point where he was deemed fit to start.
That was a big psychological boost, but was followed by a dramatic downer when he had to leave the final so early. They might have coped better if he hadn't been fit to start because they would have been programmed for the new test. Instead, it was business as usual with their leader in place, only to lose him even before the game had properly warmed up.
It's still a moot point as to whether Kilkenny would have won with a fully-fit Shefflin. He certainly couldn't have done much to shore up an uncharacteristically uneasy defence but then much of the confidence which Tipperary used so smartly to make inroads came from being able to restrict Kilkenny at their other end.
With Shefflin aboard, Kilkenny's strike rate would have been much higher, which could well have altered the balance of the entire game.
Still, his departure underlined the degree to which Kilkenny rely on him, an area that Cody will be working on in the course of next spring. Knowing that Shefflin was always there to get the important things done brought great comfort to his colleagues, but they now need to prove that they're self-sufficient in their own right.
It's most unlikely that there will be sweeping changes in the Kilkenny panel. One defeat, albeit one of such a historic dimension, doesn't suddenly make them a bad side. Besides, there was no wholesale adjustments the last time Kilkenny found themselves in this position five years ago.
DJ Carey and Peter Barry signed off the panel for 2006, but, other than that, it was pretty much the same side. Indeed, of the 19 players Kilkenny used in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Galway, 14 of them played on the team that beat Cork in the following year's final.
Cody will tweak the panel, just as he does every year, but most of them will be back next year. An early indication of the direction Kilkenny are taking will come in the National League, a competition they have always valued.
They won the NHL title in 2002 and 2006, seasons which followed championship defeats, so expect them to make a push in 2011.
Despite the All-Ireland final defeat, they are installed as 6/5 favourites to win the 2011 All-Ireland -- odds which show the markets don't believe there's anything wrong with Kilkenny that a battery recharge and a new season won't sort out.