Monday 20 August 2018

Cats purr after campaign full of talking points

Game in great health but few creases still need to be ironed out

Brian Cody will be delighted with another league title after campaign got off to a difficult start Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Brian Cody will be delighted with another league title after campaign got off to a difficult start Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Cody's most significant success?

It won't be dubbed a miracle outright - the league still demands that celebrations are somewhat circumspect - but there were still a few around Kilkenny on Sunday night who got the taste of wine from a glass they thought was filled with water just a few months earlier.

An 18th league title, ninth for Brian Cody, is entitled, in the circumstances of a considerable rebuild, to beg the question as to where it ranks in terms of the manager's achievements - better than any of his previous eight league titles for sure, including 2002 when he conducted an extensive makeover and up there with the 2006 and 2015 All-Ireland titles.

In 2015 so many familiar names had departed and in 2006 they thwarted Cork's three-in-a-row.

"I swore, by Christ, we'd prove Kilkenny weren't gone," Cody would recall saying in his autobiography some years later as he listened to and read the various obituaries relating to them.

It's not an All-Ireland title but it's still firm evidence of rapid resurgence.

Long haul ball flight

Maybe you had to be in Innovate Wexford Park to appreciate the distance Eoin Murphy landed a free from the edge of his own 'D' during the first half of Kilkenny's semi-final win over the home side. Or be in Thurles on the night that Ronan Maher cut that sideline from inside his own half.

Either way, the flight distance appears to be rising all the time for how far some hurlers can drive a ball.

Is there really any value in bravely blocking a ball, helplessly watching it go out over the end line and then even more helplessly watch an opposition marksman convert with ease from a subsequent 65? Time to redraw the pitch markings?

Cynical play

More pronounced than ever in this campaign was the number of players in good positions yanked down deliberately as they bore down on goal. The evidence is there across a variety of games where such incidents stand out, always with a goal opportunity on the horizon. The black card hasn't been a resounding success in football because of the variance in application but it's becoming a blight in hurling where the punishment of a yellow card and a free isn't fitting the crime.

Testing ground

Kilkenny used 30 players in their eight-match campaign, more than any in recent league as Brian Cody cast the net wide, Michael Ryan surpassed that figure using 33. By their third game Galway had deployed 30 players, all figures in excess of other years. It was that kind of league, no one set out with winning it as a priority. Panel expansion was on every manager's mind. Ryan even resisted the temptation not to spring Padraic Maher and Noel McGrath at a critical time when they had Kilkenny on the rack at the end of February in Nowlan Park, a first win there in 10 years on the line. Derek McGrath decided not to use any substitute in their opening game against Waterford.

Tipp's full-back conundrum

Towards the end of his post-match interview, Tipperary manager Michael Ryan was asked about the prospect of Michael Breen filling in at full-back after James Barry's withdrawal had forced the repositioning of Padraic Maher to the trouble spot, less than four years after he had been airlifted out of it during a qualifier against Galway. The league threw up many new possibilities for Tipp but full-back has them searching for answers again.

Goals graph going lower

The lowest number of Division 1A goals since the league structure was reshaped into its current format in seven years and the lowest inclusive of quarter-finals reintroduced five years ago. From 22 games (not including the relegation play-off games there were 45 goals, eight less than the 53 in 2016, the previous lowest total. Better defence carries some responsibility but the option of a point from distance with a ball travelling further than ever is proving more difficult to resist.

Offaly green shoots

A lot of emotion after their Croke Park win over Dublin in January but the fact was Dublin were a vastly depleted outfit. Their narrow quarter-final loss to Kilkenny will have brought more satisfaction against the backdrop of a 6-20 to 0-14 defeat to the same opponents at the same stage two years ago, a sign of tangible progress that a new team can develop around young players like goalkeeper Eoghan Cahill and corner-back Ben Conneely.

TJ Reid v Jason Forde

Not since the league was revamped have two hurlers shot the lights out like Reid and Forde. Prior to this year Seamus Callanan's 5-62 for Tipperary in 2014 was the highest individual return from a campaign but both Forde and Reid have gone beyond that with 7-72 and 1-81 respectively.

Dearth of red cards

There may be an issue with cynical fouling close to goals in hurling but red cards have been a rarity in this league. By our count there has been just seven in Division One (A and B) from 37 games played. There were six in the four first round Division One football games in late January. Make of that what you will.

Home rule

As a pointer to the new-look provincial championships which will be played on a home and away basis it's worth looking at results in Division 1A where 11 out of the 15 group games were won at home. In the play-offs the home team won four out of seven, a 68 per cent return overall.

It wasn't enough to prevent Davy Fitzgerald's first Innovate Wexford Park loss however - to Kilkenny in the league semi-final - since he took over as manager there.

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