Tuesday 12 December 2017

Central positions up for grabs in Kilkenny revamp

Defensive stability will be Brian Cody's key concern as he plots another rebuilding job

Brian Cody will oversee yet another rebuilding job as Kilkenny look to the immediate future. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Brian Cody will oversee yet another rebuilding job as Kilkenny look to the immediate future. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

The league starts now," declared Brian Cody after Kilkenny won the Walsh Cup final last Sunday, "so straight away we are into very serious hurling." Any competition is serious with Kilkenny but there is another level of earnestness when it comes to the league. A compact schedule, five quick-fire rounds in six weeks, and a competitive field leaves little margin for error. But needs must. Experimentation is an essential component of Kilkenny's journey in the weeks and months ahead.

Friday night's team selection will have roused added curiosity. Kilkenny, it is generally accepted by their own followers, are unlikely to win the All-Ireland this year. Unlikely is not to be confused with the mission being dismissed out of hand but after last year's emphatic loss to Tipperary, the changes necessary to stabilise the defence are going to require patience and probably some more pain along the way.

The greatest flurry of interest surrounds the full-back position, once filled with distinction by the manager himself, and now up for auction. Throughout last year's local championship there were no outstanding bidders. The county's gruelling experience in Croke Park last September was mirrored on the club front. When Kilkenny champions O'Loughlin Gaels lost to Cuala in the Leinster club final in December their full-back line went to pieces. In the Walsh Cup final, Robbie Lennon started there but Paul Murphy eventually took over. Lennon hasn't been selected today, and Murphy is playing in the half-back line.

The struggle to fill the space vacated by JJ Delaney's departure continues. Today's solution, whether temporary or long-term, follows an earlier line of thinking. Delaney moved from wing-back to do an outstanding job there and in choosing Pádraig Walsh Kilkenny are replicating that formula. Whether Walsh is jumping for joy at the prospect is irrelevant. He will not be adding to his medal haul unless Kilkenny develop a meaner streak in defending their own goal.

For now at least he takes over from Joey Holden, the unfortunate sentry when Seamus Callanan went on a scoring spree in the All-Ireland final. Holden played full-back when Kilkenny won the All-Ireland in 2015 and retains a place today, named in the right corner, with Clara's Conor O'Shea picked on the left after making a healthy impression in the Walsh Cup final. Kilkenny have ten of the team that started last year's All-Ireland final included.

There is a real prospect that Kilkenny may be about to enter their leanest spell since Cody took charge. Only once in that time have Kilkenny failed to win an All-Ireland for two straight years; in 2004 and '05, losing the semi-final to Galway in '05 (with their regular full-back Noel Hickey injured) and taking a comprehensive beating from Cork in the final the year before. The next Kilkenny team capable of winning All-Irelands may be a couple of more years in the making. It is feasible that for the first time in the Cody era they could go three years without one. How they handle this challenge is going to be fascinating. This afternoon will provide some clues but won't solve that mystery.

But, sober heads. They have not turned into paupers overnight. Ger Aylward, their All-Star forward of two years ago, struck down by serious injury last year, is on the road to recovery. Michael Fennelly is also hoping to have a say in how Kilkenny's season pans out. The player plucked in standard Kilkenny fashion out of the rabbit's hat last year against Waterford for the replayed All-Ireland semi final, Liam Blanchfield, plays today.

He is joined by another Bennettsbridge player, Sean Morrissey. Jonjo Farrell's season went into reverse during the drawn match with Waterford last year but he is named today. In the Walsh Cup final Pat Lyng impressed and is given the jersey while Ollie Walsh made light of the burden of his famous name by scoring three points from play a week ago from midfield and will be given another look. He is grandson of Kilkenny's goalkeeping legend.

Walter Walsh, injured in recent weeks, has come to back in and is on the bench. Richie Hogan, captaining the team, looks set to maintain the virtuoso form of recent years and TJ Reid remains one of the leading forwards in the country. But it is at the back where Kilkenny's fortunes are more likely to be influenced. Murphy has been stationed at centre-back in recent matches. Today he is named on the wing, with Kieran Joyce filling the central position. Joyce was not named in last week's team but played wing-back and won the man-of-the-match award. Neither central position is nailed down. There is concern that the standard of senior club hurling in Kilkenny has dropped, and the county minors and under-21s both suffered early exits last year. Not hard to imagine a Kilkenny team, then, hopping mad off the ground today to show that there is plenty life in them yet. Last year Waterford defeated them in the league at Walsh Park, and were better than the four-point difference reflected. They hit 18 wides, six of those from Austin Gleeson, but the win, while carrying plenty of imperfections, marked their first league success over Kilkenny since 2009, indeed their first competitive win over Cody's men in that same period.

Since 2000 Waterford have won five league meetings between the teams, but only 13 in all to Kilkenny's 41, with three draws. Among those Waterford wins was the league final of 2007 which did not lead to the success much craved in the championship, as it is no less craved now. Limerick ruined their plans in the All-Ireland semi-final and the next year when they got to the All-Ireland final, they met Kilkenny at their absolute pinnacle.

They don't have to face them at the same frightening level now and last year's performances against Kilkenny were highly encouraging. The hurling championship soared into another dimension when the counties met in the All-Ireland semi-finals, a tame season exploding in one dramatic week's play. Waterford, by common consensus, should have won the first day but those wides came back to haunt them again. While in the ascendancy in the final ten minutes, they hit five wides which allowed Kilkenny to remain in the game until Walter Walsh's late goal led to a dramatic finale and stalemate. Six days later they went at it again in Thurles, a brilliant match, ignited by wonderful goals from Gleeson and Colin Fennelly in the first half.

A day later Galway and Tipp served up another classic match, providing three in a week after a frustrating season. The shift in Waterford's method of play to a more conventional formation was widely welcomed as formal recognition that the talent was sufficient to beat any team on its own merits, devoid of systems and strategies. Similar hope is being vested in Clare this year abandoning the hold of excessive defensive safeguards.

After being destroyed in the Munster final by Tipperary, Waterford's resurgence was a remarkable psychological feat. They retained a sweeper's awareness, with Tadhg de Búrca covering in front of his full-back line in the drawn match with Kilkenny that allowed Richie Hogan free space from which he pocketed four points from play. But on the whole the switch amounted to a declaration of confidence in Waterford by Waterford. They went for it and while victory eluded them the evidence of the two matches was ample proof that they are genuine contenders to win their first All-Ireland since 1959 later this year.

Cork or Tipp in June in the Munster semi-final is their target date, with the league building confidence and teaching the players how to win matches at a pitch virtually identical to championship. The under 21s' All-Ireland win, following the senior team's resurrection against Kilkenny and the two league final days with Clare, reinforced the popular view of Waterford as reliable box-office material.

Trying to strike the right balance between the county's cavalier characteristics and the need to exercise some caution and control is an ongoing process. Thankfully, it seems that the balance is now titled in favour of the former. Kilkenny often defend deep but it is unlikely that they will, no matter how bleak things are, seek recourse to a sweeper. The All-Ireland final last September was conclusive proof of that.

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