Sunday 25 August 2019

Cody casts net wider than ever to build his new Kilkenny dynasty

Kilkenny's Adrian Mullen. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Kilkenny's Adrian Mullen. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

A place on a Kilkenny championship hurling team was once so difficult to command that even when they were routing Waterford in that 2008 All-Ireland final, manager Brian Cody only introduced just two substitutes.

TJ Reid scored four points on his introduction, and James McGarry, the goalkeeper for whom the game was a farewell, came on for PJ Ryan in the closing stages when the game was already done and dusted.

An All-Ireland final appearance was never going to given lightly. There has never been a sense of tokenism about a Brian Cody-managed Kilkenny team; selection was earned, even as a substitute.

Racking

With teams that were generally on top and racking up titles, breaking in to the first 15 was often as big a challenge as winning the games themselves. Reid and Richie Hogan, for instance, took a few seasons to establish themselves as first-team choices prior to becoming indispensables by the middle part of the decade.

In the 18 years of his stewardship, from the 1999 Leinster Championship to the 2016 All-Ireland final defeat against Tipperary, Kilkenny championship teams under Cody featured 92 different players, a small pool for the years involved and volume of games.

But in the three years since that Tipp defeat, the face of the Kilkenny team has been transformed and the net has been thrown wider than ever with 21 players featuring in a championship match for the first time, an average of three per year.

His defiant projection on the morning after the 2016 final ("there are players on our panel who haven't been seen yet who will be top players, and quickly. You can rest assured of that") has manifested into quite the sweep.

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It started slowly in 2017 with Conor O'Shea, Chris Bolger, Richie Reid, Joe Lyng and Richie Leahy making debuts in that year's championship as the Cats made their earliest exit under Cody when losing to Waterford in a second-round qualifier. Bolger, Reid and Lyng haven't featured since, O'Shea played twice in 2018 but Leahy has become an ever-present fixture since that night against Waterford.

Cody oversaw the biggest changes in 2018 when 10 players were given championship debuts. Against Dublin alone in the first round-robin game in Parnell Park, Conor Delaney, Enda Morrissey, James Maher, Martin Keogan, John Donnelly, Bill Sheehan and Luke Scanlon made their debuts.

By the end of last season, Conor Browne, Bill Ryan and Pat Lyng had all been introduced for the first time.

This season the trend has continued. When Eoin Murphy was ruled out injured, Darren Brennan stepped in as goalkeeper for the first three games.

Huw Lawlor has established himself as first-choice full-back, a privileged position in any Kilkenny set-up, while Tommy Walsh, Alan Murphy and Jason Cleere played their first championship games in the round-robin.

No player's introduction underlines such changed times as Adrian Mullen.

The All-Ireland club winner with Ballyhale is still eligible for U-20 but has been fast-tracked into the senior team, playing in all six games so far this season. A prodigious talent, but prodigious talents have been made wait in the past. Not now.

The increased volume of games, due to the introduction of the Leinster series, has helped to accelerate the number of appearances for each player.

TJ Reid has played in all 16 championship games since 2016, advancing him to joint-third with Eoin Larkin on 58, in terms of championship appearances under Cody. Only Henry Shefflin on 71 and JJ Delaney on 65 have more but, at 31, Reid will surely become the Kilkenny player with the highest number of appearances within the next two seasons.

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