MICHAEL FENNELLY is at a loss to understand the difference between this summer and last -- why he was a bit-part player in 2009 and a midfield mainstay in 2010.
But then the Ballyhale powerhouse touches on one possible reason for his changing fortunes: he was captain as Kilkenny went chasing four-in-a-row.
That huge honour comes with an obvious caveat attached -- pressure -- especially for an up-and-coming player who had yet to fully establish himself under Brian Cody. This year, he has been free to concentrate on his own game ... and, as the form graph amply illustrates, Fennelly has flourished.
"I can't put my finger on it," the 25-year-old insists when asked to account for the improvement in his own game. "Last year I'd have put an awful lot of work in off the field. Doing a lot of work outside training and that. I suppose there's a small bit of pressure off me, not being captain this year, and I was lucky enough to get a start against Dublin and hurled okay. I got the next start then against Galway -- big game, good team -- and I played alright as well. So I'm building the confidence, I suppose."
With no armband and less pressure attached, this year has been "more free-flowing" ... and yet he cannot pinpoint anything different in his preparation compared to previous years.
Maybe part of the answer is that Fennelly has come into his physical prime. At six foot three and 14-and-a-half stone, he cuts an imposing figure. Marry that formidable power to his athleticism and you have a player close to unstoppable in full flight.
Just ask the routed Rebels.
Comparisons with the legendary Frank Cummins are obviously premature and yet the similarities extend beyond one of birthplace (Cummins did most of his club hurling in Cork but is a native of the Ballyhale parish).
This summer Fennelly was solid against Dublin, upped his game for the Leinster final against Galway and was better again for the All-Ireland semi-final, playing like an All Star-elect. His two points merely iced the cake as he stormed around the pitch, making blocks, pouncing on breaks and generally breaking Cork's spirit.
As Kilkenny's drive-for-five has evolved, he has assumed the role of primary midfielder, albeit partly because current All Star Michael Rice fell prey to injury after the Galway game and was only fit for a forward cameo against Cork.
But as the player himself warns ahead of Sunday's assault on both Tipperary and the history books: "If you don't play well in the All-Ireland final, the whole year is scrapped really." On such vaulting standards are Kilkenny men judged.
For the Cork game, Fennelly resumed his celebrated club partnership with Cha Fitzpatrick. Having hurled so well, the Ballyhale boys are likely to stay in tandem this Sunday with Rice possibly restored in the half-forward line.
Fennelly and Fitzpatrick were also manning the middle of Croke Park last March when Shamrocks regained the All-Ireland club title at the expense of their great rivals and vaunted holders, Portumna.
"Training was more focused on hurling in January, February, March, whereas the (county) boys were probably doing a lot more running, a lot more foundation work. So we (Ballyhale) have been going non-stop from last year the whole way to March," Fennelly points out.
"I actually didn't play any league at all. I got injured after the club All-Ireland, so I was out for four or five weeks which I thought might hamper my year, because obviously if you don't get in early it makes life a bit harder.
"Last year I started against Galway (in the Leinster semi-final), I didn't have a good game and obviously found it hard to get back on the team. Once you're in, it is a small bit easier but at the same time it's about performing in training every day."
What Fennelly declines to mention is that last season -- just like Fitzpatrick -- he was laid low by the mumps. He was diagnosed on the morning Kilkenny were due to play Tipperary in the National League final -- a fast and furious extra-time classic.
Who knows, the residual effects of that illness may well have contributed to Fennelly's confined role as 'non-playing captain' for much of that summer. Having started and been subbed against Galway, he didn't feature against Dublin or Waterford.
Yet for the final, as Tipperary pressed on the after-burners and threatened the holders with their first summer defeat in four years, the skipper was summoned from the bench after 52 minutes.
Within a minute he had clipped a point, and a momentous afternoon culminated in Fennelly raising the Liam MacCarthy Cup in triumph.
"Obviously you'd be looking down the line the whole time, to see if you'd get the nod. I know Tipp went two or three points ahead, and they were getting on top, building momentum, and I said 'Oh God, are we going to lose this now?' But thankfully TJ (Reid), myself and Gorta (Martin Comerford) came on around that time and we all chipped in with a few scores," he recalls.
"I wanted to lead the team out that day and obviously I wasn't picked, so I was just hoping to get a run. Five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, whatever it took. But I was delighted to get in and just wanted to prove myself and be part of it."
Now Fennelly is more than just part of it: he's a central player in every sense of the word.