LESSONS OF HISTORY
With all the talk of Kilkenny's bid for a remarkable five-in-a-row, it's easy to forget that they weren't always so dominant. FRANK ROCHE talks to two managers who saw off the Cats and asks - can they be stopped again?
THE hurling world was a different place in 2005. Cork were the ruling monarchs and the Kilkenny defence, admittedly shorn of Noel Hickey's fortifying presence, leaked five goals during a truly madcap All-Ireland semi-final defeat by those mercurial Galway men.
That season ended with Cork successfully defending their All-Ireland crown against the Tribesmen, while the wounded Cats went off to lick their wounds and contemplate where to next.
The following summer would initially be dominated by talk of Cork's quest for the first three-in-a-row since their Rebel forebears of the late '70s.
Kilkenny, supposedly, were a "team in transition". And no one in the Marble City, Brian Cody included, was looking beyond one-in-a-row.
Ah yes, the mid-noughties. A different era, indeed.
We now stand on the cusp of the 2010 Senior Hurling Championship. It will start in humble surrounds this Saturday evening when unheralded Laois host those Liam MacCarthy rookies, Carlow, in O'Moore Park.
It will all climax at a capacity Croke Park on September 5 when, so the widespread consensus presumes, Kilkenny will step onto their favourite piece of sporting real estate -- just 70 minutes away from a form of hurling immortality never previously achieved and one unlikely to ever happen again either.
In other words, 70 minutes away from the fabled five-in-a-row. Will it happen? Perhaps more to the point, can anyone stop them?
The Evening Herald this week caught up with two former managers who both have fond reason to recall a time when Kilkenny weren't kings.
John Allen remains the last boss to mastermind an All-Ireland senior triumph (for Cork in '05) who doesn't answer to the name Brian. Conor Hayes remains the last boss to mastermind a championship defeat of Kilkenny -- the aforementioned semi-final that finished 5-18 to 4-18 in favour of Galway, despite a valiant late comeback from Cody's men.
That was then; this is now. And both men come down in favour of the history chasing champions.
"I'd like to go out on a limb and say Galway or Tipperary to win it," Allen remarks. "I give them every chance of being competitive but if Kilkenny can avoid having one or two key players injured, I couldn't see them being stopped."
"I think this will be the last throw for immortality," Hayes declares. "It will never be done again -- four-in-a-row will probably never be done either -- so it's a real opportunity to make lasting history."
Some neutrals may surmise that all this five-in-a-row talk could inhibit the holders. The ex-Galway supremo is more inclined to believe it "spurs them on".
As for Kilkenny's unusually mundane National League campaign, neither former boss views it as a tell-tale sign of looming vulnerability. If anything, Allen cites their 'failure' to reach the final as "an advantage" -- having trundled along without Henry Shefflin and with Eoin Larkin playing closer to goal rather than his usual wing forward role.
Now, as their latest Leinster defence looms, most of the heavy-hitters are back "jostling for position" and Allen believes his former sideline adversary is in "a great position again."
Equally, there seems little doubt about Kilkenny's favoured route back to the summit. "I would imagine Brian Cody's thinking would be the an modh díreach," says Allen. "Obviously Galway will pose a fairly stiff question if they both get to the Leinster final, which I presume they will."
"It looks like he is trying to set them up for three big games -- a Leinster final, an All-Ireland semi-final and final," echoes Hayes, who can see signs of slippage -- just not enough for them to be caught this year.
"Of all the teams, Tipp would be coming close," he expands. "In last year's final, they more or less had them up to a point. But then they had a man sent off and (Martin) Comerford comes on ... and it's all over."
Hayes cites resilience and experience as two key factors that should stand to the champions. Allen believes they are blessed to have "20 exceptional players all playing at the one time".
The likes of Eddie Brennan, Richie Power, Jackie Tyrrell and Cha Fitzpatrick are all superb players in their own right -- and yet in Kilkenny, you've got Tommy Walsh and Shefflin and Larkin who are "another step ahead".
The Corkman pinpoints versatility, particularly in that rotating forward line, as another plus. Plus the "great underage structure" that churns out "top class hurlers" with all the fundamental skills by the time they reach minor and U21.
And then overseeing it all -- seven All-Ireland titles and counting -- is the commander himself. "Mick O'Dwyer prides himself on being an obsessive -- Cody is the same, in his application and interest," Allen declares. "I have met Brian Cody on numerous occasions and he would tell me about players in Cork ... I certainly wouldn't have the same level of knowledge about players in Kilkenny who were not on the Kilkenny team. His life is dedicated to it."
Sooner or later, presumably, this period of Black-and-Amber opulence will come to an end. Predictably, Allen views Galway (based on their league final performance) and Tipperary (based on last year's All-Ireland) as the two most likely challengers. Cork and Waterford are next on the list, while there is "no chance" of the title venturing beyond that group.
Hayes quotes Pete McGrath talking about his Down football team of the '90s and how the quality that made them two-time champions was "gone like a thief in the night". With Kilkenny, though, he reckons this is more likely to happen next year than now.
"Tipp have the most experience against them -- from the league and All-Ireland finals last year. That should stand to them and hopefully they will have learned where to find chinks.
"But they have their own battles (in Munster)," cautions the last Galway man to lift Liam MacCarthy, 22 years ago.
"There's a big game in Galway but whether that comes in a Leinster final or not, I'm not sure. I still think they are sorting out positions, settling into a manner of play where Joe Canning is now playing better within the team. Hopefully Galway do it, but I still think they are maturing. Next year, certainly, Kilkenny will have eased back more and it will be a more open championship. But I find it difficult to see them being beaten this year," he concludes.