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Kilkenny facing question marks over transition

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Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Picture: Pat Murphy/SPORTSFILE

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Picture: Pat Murphy/SPORTSFILE

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Picture: Pat Murphy/SPORTSFILE

THERE was a widely-floated notion, circa 2008 when Kilkenny hurlers were at their zenith, that the second best hurling team in Ireland could be found occupying the seats of Brian Cody's bench.

It was, of course, one of those foolproof theories that could never be proven – or disproven. How close to reality was it? Not very, we'd suggest.

True, a handful of elite hurlers who would walk onto most other county teams couldn't make Cody's starting selection ... but there were never 15 such players waiting patiently on the bleachers.

It has taken a few years for this reality to fully dawn: As Kilkenny's all-time greats either retired or suffered serious injury or succumbed to the ravages of time, we discovered that the next generation weren't quite at the same elevated level. Yes, some dazzling new mainstays have emerged – Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly and Paul Murphy spring to mind – but there hasn't been a glut of them.

WANING

The net result has been a gradual waning of Kilkenny's erstwhile invincible status, to a point where they were hammered in a 2012 Leinster final by Galway (cue a heroic All-Ireland recovery) as a prequel to last summer's death by a thousand cuts.

In response, Cody (above) has embarked on an extensive trawl of new talent. Several wannabes have put their hands up already, but the results have been mixed and we saw further evidence of that on Saturday night, as the previously up-and-down Dubs deservedly won a rollicking contest by three points.

Kilkenny's seen-it-all manager didn't sound overly distraught afterwards, but then it's seldom that his inscrutable mask slips. Looking on from the Parnell Park press box, however, and having watched Kilkenny's recent goalfest with Tipperary too, this observer spied several areas of concern for the Cats.

Defence is an issue and, ironically, the biggest one centres around some decorated veterans. We'll venture that Brian Hogan isn't the solution to their full-back prayers, and Kilkenny fans must hope that when JJ Delaney returns (he's a "possibility" for Waterford this weekend) he can rediscover his old mojo.

Hogan remains their best centre-back option, especially as Lester Ryan hasn't set the world alight there – but what about Tommy Walsh? The No 5 in that iconic red helmet has suffered the indignity of being substituted at half-time in his last two outings, against Tipp and Dublin. He'll be 31 come Championship; the awkward question is whether this nine-time All Star still has the legs when faced by a sprightlier current All Star such as Danny Sutcliffe?

Are Kilkenny a busted flush? Don't be daft! What has changed, however, is that the Black-and-Amber jersey no longer induces fear and dread among fellow contenders, of which there are many in this new era of All-Ireland glasnost.

One final point: What has all the above 'small' talk got to do with Dublin's big ball dynasty? Well, we've all heard this endless discussion about the opulence of the playing options at Jim Gavin's disposal. And it's true – up to a point. But this doesn't mean their bench qualifies as the second best team in Ireland; anything but.

Last Sunday, the starting team in Derry featured six players (including three current All Stars) who started against Mayo last September. To that mix, you can add Alan Brogan, 2011 Footballer of the Year and their classiest performer on the day.

However, the nature of Dublin's six-point defeat reaffirmed a few salient points. Namely, when Rory O'Carroll isn't around to shore up the full-back line; when Gavin's half-back division is deprived the searing pace of Jack McCaffrey and James McCarthy; when his attack is still missing Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly and Bernard Brogan (plus the recently buzzing Kevin McManamon), Dublin footballers are eminently beatable.

Just like the second best hurling team in Ireland, circa 2008.


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