Wednesday 21 March 2018

Vincent Hogan: Shefflin leading Cats on march back to summit

Still a month to go to the hallelujah game, then. When hurling squares up to a mirror, that's how it sees itself today. Just getting the big hall ready. Waterford and Dublin are the forgotten men of this jamboree, a floor that must be swept, a table that needs a sponge.

Maybe greatness gives, but it also takes away. Some time ago, Brian Cody and Kilkenny became inanimate in our eyes. Not so much a group of people as some kind of shared philosophy. Winning was considered a natural punctuation of their lives. A given.

So the good breeding in them will, no doubt, see that we're not overly detained tomorrow. Hurling expects an uncomplicated kill. Maybe the odd, rough and tumble twist, but, ultimately, a quick knife to the heart.

And nobody deals in cleaner death than Kilkenny.

On Thursday night, Keith Rossiter found himself struggling for a word to capture their demeanour this summer. "I don't know," he said, "when we played them in Wexford Park, the atmosphere on the field was 'Look, just get this job done and move on ... '

"Other times, they might have been trying to kill you off with goals. But this was just a sort of heavy work-rate. A relentlessness, that's what it was. Relentless is the word. They looked like a team looking to get back somewhere."

In their history under Cody, self-determination has become the Kilkenny way. If the manager creates the environment, it is the players who drive it on. And word from training is that there's been plenty of kindling to be found again in Nowlan Park.

Stories of marquee players flaking one another have, historically, reassured the Kilkenny public. If the Order of Malta was needed at Wednesday training, something elemental generally loomed for the weekend.

This is, of course, hopeless cliché, but it irrigates the wait at least. If, say, Noel Hickey is going half as well in training as the grapevine has been telling us this week, Waterford may as well gather their things now, pack up and slip away while they can.

The important point is that Kilkenny are back spreading a long shadow. In any other county, the weight of favouritism they carry into Croke Park tomorrow might be a source of worry. In Kilkenny, it is the running narrative of their lives.

True, a great deal of what we take as an understanding of them is based on assumption too. We register certain qualities to be non-negotiable. Incorruptible.

So their recovery from that league final meltdown against Dublin at the beginning of May now strikes us as something humdrum. Doubt, it seems, never settled by a single Kilkenny rib-cage. They just got their key men back and used the Leinster Championship as a foot-stool.

Maybe that's their greatness. Kilkenny under Cody always find another, simpler, setting. They don't over-examine what they do.

Everything about them evolves at a pace that almost escapes the naked eye. Consider this. Of the team that started last year's All-Ireland final, six haven't been making the cut this championship. True, injuries have cut John Tennyson and Aidan Fogarty from the equation but, between them, PJ Ryan, John Dalton, 'Cha' Fitzpatrick and Eddie Brennan haven't had a championship start.

Michael Rice's injury may facilitate 'Cha' tomorrow, but standing still just isn't the Cody template.

And the league comes back to us as a mild hallucination now. Not just the final, but the journey to it. Remember Kilkenny cutting Galway open by 2-3 to 0-0 inside five minutes only to become fall-guys to a 13-point swing? Remember them toying with Cork, then almost forgetting to make the kill? Remember them all but declare an innings at half-time against Wexford?

And remember the game against Dublin under lights that ended in a draw? It was early April and eight of the team that started that night will not be starting tomorrow.

How has Cody done it? As he has always done, with an air of perfect nonchalance.

The return of Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, Michael Fennelly and Richie Power has, essentially, given the team its teeth again. Shefflin's leadership, especially, has brought a palpable calm. He shipped a few saucy collisions on his comeback against Wexford and, ostensibly, his contribution that evening seemed confined largely to frees.

But, if you looked closer, he was pulling strings.

"They're a different team without him," says Rossiter. "I know that, when he's not around, they can replace him with one of the best forwards in the country. That's how strong they are. But Henry creates so much, the level of minding he takes is huge.

"The way he keeps drifting and moving around, you can't let him out of your sight for a second. And that's what creates space for the other players. He's their main man at the end of the day, still their driving force.

"Because if things aren't going well for Kilkenny, he's the one who can dig deep and pull them back into it."

Others take their lead from him. In the Leinster final against Dublin, just after Eoin Larkin's opening goal, Shefflin won the puck-out with a clean catch. Michael Fennelly and Walsh followed suit on the next two puck-outs. Dublin weren't being squeezed, they were being eaten.

Deep into the second half, 'Dotsy' O'Callaghan ran down a cul-de-sac and was dispossessed. Standing next to the Dublin player, Brian Hogan -- normally reserved as a dole-office clerk -- erupted in a frenzy of clenched fists and roared promises. Kilkenny led 3-13 to 0-12 at the time.

They weren't counting.

"Murdered" was how Anthony Daly described it later and it was all of that. But this homicide left a few unanswered questions too.

Against Wexford, Cody had gone with JJ Delaney at full-back and seen him burnt for three points on Garret Sinnott's first three touches. Hickey played right corner that evening and got through it without ever looking like a man who'd found a new vocation.

Against Dublin, JJ was restored to his natural wing berth, Hickey returning to the edge of the 'square'. The rejig passed without incident, Dublin's primary goal threat confined to the stand through suspension.

But watching Ryan O'Dwyer subsequently run amok against Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final, you couldn't but help wonder what he might have done if set loose on the great Dunnamaggin warrior.

Dublin just never looked programmed to search for goals in the Leinster final. They sought engagement further afield and hoped to out-point the opposition. And, once Colin Fennelly had skinned Oisin Gough for Kilkenny's second goal, Dublin's points' haul became incidental.

There was the odd sign, against both Wexford and Dublin, that Jackie Tyrrell wasn't moving with his customary authority, so Davy Fitz might see opportunity tomorrow in putting early ball down the throats of his full-forward line.

But, against Kilkenny, thinking and doing can be planets apart.

Paul Murphy has been a revelation and David Herity, a substitute back in '03, now looks an overnight sensation between the posts. In the changing of the guard, these two have been the scene-stealers.

Michael Fennelly, too, has returned from injury to pick up where he left off last year and, on the '40', Power is finally becoming the player he was signposted to be from the cradle. Rice looks to have found a nice scoring niche on the wing and, if Colin Fennelly is a goal-threat inside, he still has a distance to travel to be as prolific as 'Fast Eddie'.

Yet, in TJ Reid and Richie Hogan, Kilkenny have two puzzles. Both play with unassailable grace on the good days, galling anonymity on the bad. If they are to lead when great men like Hickey and Henry and Tommy and JJ depart, it is now they need to be telling the man in charge.

Still, the bookies see Waterford as no more than a sand-castle in the line of an angry surf now. Not since the '59 final have they had a championship win against Kilkenny. And, no matter how tomorrow gets tarted up, everything reeks a little of déjà vu.

In his autobiography 'Hooked', Justin McCarthy railed against what he saw as the "over-emphasis on physical fitness" swamping inter-county hurling. He believed the game had become inherently ageist on the back of this fundamentalism. Yet, his time with Waterford would end, essentially, because the players believed they needed to be fitter to compete in the modern game.

It is no accident of chance that the four teams to reach this year's All-Ireland semi-finals were, patently, the four best-conditioned in the championship.

Davy Fitz has, maybe, never got the credit he deserves for nurturing that work ethic in Waterford.

That said, the difficulty in making a case for his team now is obvious. Fitzgerald was criticised for being overly tactical against Tipperary in the Munster final and everyone saw the wreckers' yard of crumpled white jerseys that materialised.

To some degree, Waterford hurled with more freedom against Galway, albeit dragging their half-forward line out the field to leave more space inside for Shane Walsh and others to prosper.


Do they repeat that tomorrow in the hope that Messrs Walsh, Hogan and Delaney will be lured forward and leave an open door behind them? Hardly. What worked against Galway's half-backs carries no currency tomorrow.

But that's the problem for Fitzgerald. Going in without a plan for ball management against Kilkenny is tantamount to surrender. The better team will always win that game. And Kilkenny are better than Waterford.

So just going hip-to-hip isn't an option. Short of using an elephant gun, it's difficult to know what is.

The word from Nowlan Park this week is that Cody has been calibrating Kilkenny's attacking play to free up congestion and create more goal opportunities. The inference is that, come September 4, they intend facing down Tipperary at their own game.

Unkind on Waterford and Dublin?

"I know it's not fair to talk that way, but I can't see beyond a Tipp-Kilkenny final," says Rossiter. "Maybe Waterford will prove me wrong. It would be great if they did. But I think Tipp and Kilkenny are two steps ahead of everyone.

"They've brought it on to such a high level, it's unbelievable. We're all trying to catch up but, if anything, we're slipping the other way. The intensity they play with, the skill level, the game-plan they stick to, it's all phenomenal. I think it has the makings of another great final.

"And I think the hurt that drove Tipp on last year is driving Kilkenny now."

Just biding their time for another hallelujah.

Irish Independent

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