Brian Cody's new kids signal a rebuild with historic precedent
Kilkenny may not be searching for the right blend and the winning formula for too long
Not since Brian Cody's playing days, and even then not to the same extent, have Kilkenny seen fit to commit so many rookies to senior championship hurling as the seven that faced Dublin on May 13. You couldn't say it came as a huge surprise, with those players being part of a rousing National League final win over Tipperary the month before, but seven starters is easily a record under Cody. Billy Ryan, named in today's Leinster final team, can now be added to that list.
To find a rebuild on that scale from recent times you must travel back to 1981 when Kilkenny played Wexford in a Leinster semi-final and started six newcomers. The most surprising of those was Maurice Mason of Ballyhale Shamrocks, picked at centre-back at the age of 31, with Jim Moran, Paudie Lannon, a former soccer player with Thurles Town, Kieran Brennan, Liam Fennelly and Christy Heffernan all unveiled for the first time. Mason made the squad in 1979 when Kilkenny won the All-Ireland but had never played senior championship before.
Kilkenny's lack of experience was severely tested by Dublin this year but they managed to survive a frenetic match, with Liam Blanchfield's goal in injury time nosing them in front for the first time. Their predecessors in 1981 were not so fortunate. Wexford were 2-2 to 0-0 up inside eight minutes, with Tony Doran already a goalscorer and causing havoc. Cody had to come in to police Doran after only 12 minutes, with the inexperienced Moran spared any further torture.
Recently Kerry went into their Munster football semi-final against Clare with seven new championship starters which took many by surprise and even left some followers worried that they might be vulnerable. They made light of those concerns when scoring 32 points in a runaway win. It revived memories of the glorious era of Mick O'Dwyer, and the incoming wave of excellent minors to the senior team in 1975.
Cork hurlers boldly gambled on youth in 1999. Going into the Munster semi-final match against Waterford, in his fourth season, Jimmy Barry-Murphy's head was on the block when he started six championship debutants against a fancied Waterford team which had come close to winning the previous year's provincial title.
Cork won and the selection was justified. They never looked back, winning the last All-Ireland of the decade, with Cody (pictured) in charge of the Kilkenny team they defeated in the final.
Cody was expected to blood players in this year's league, but Kilkenny were not expected to actually win the competition. Staying faithful to many of the younger players who helped achieve that result made sense. The last time they went so much for broke long precedes Cody's time as a manager and a player.
In 1961, Kilkenny faced reigning All-Ireland champions Wexford in the Leinster Championship semi-final. Selection may have been less predictable in those days given that the sub goalie for the day, Dick Rockett, had been added to the panel after receiving a call on the Friday evening before, despite being a corner-forward in the 1957 and '59 All-Ireland finals and not having played for almost two years with his club. He had hurled for Kilkenny juniors in goal in the 1961 All-Ireland final but his recall 10 years later was left-field to say the least.
Kilkenny were missing three key players through injury, Ollie Walsh, Jim 'The Link' Walsh and Pa Dillon, which explains some of the changes, eight in all. The debutants were Liam Cleere in goal, Jim Hennessy at full-back, Ted Carroll, Paddy Moran, Ned Power, Martin Coogan, Mick O'Neill and Michael Carroll.
The match, which ended in a win for Wexford, 6-8 to 5-7, is remembered most for Wexford's towering full-forward, Andy Doyle, more noted as a footballer, scoring four goals. His marker, Hennessy, was never selected again for Kilkenny.
Delve deeper into history and you will find a major overhaul in the wake of Kilkenny's resounding loss to Tipperary in the 1937 All-Ireland final in Killarney, the end of the line for an ageing side including the last bow of a past-his-best Lory Meagher. Only six of the team that played in the 1937 All-Ireland final were there when Kilkenny faced Laois in June 1938 in Portlaoise in the Leinster Championship. That suggests there may have been up to nine players new to senior championship hurling. Kilkenny won but then lost a Leinster final replay to Dublin, who won their last All-Ireland later that year.
Kilkenny haven't been producing the same quality as previously through their underage academies in recent years but history suggests they won't be searching for the winning formula and right blend for too long. Though defeated in the Leinster final in 1938, they were All-Ireland champions the year after. The loss to Wexford in '61 was followed by an All-Ireland win in 1963. And the class of '81 only had to wait until the following year, when Kilkenny rose to the top again, winning the MacCarthy Cup and retaining it a year later.
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