Saturday 16 December 2017

Cody vindicated by tweaks to rampant hurling machine

Black and Amber's new breed of leaders show that the future of the game in the county is as promising as ever, writes Jamesie O'Connor

Brian Cody celebrates celebrates with Michael Dempsey after Kilkenny's victory. David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Brian Cody celebrates celebrates with Michael Dempsey after Kilkenny's victory. David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Jamesie O'Connor

The sequel may not have quite hit the heights of the original, but it was no less gripping or absorbing a spectacle and ultimately the better side on the day emerged as champions.

The biggest questions before the game probably centred on how Kilkenny would line out and it was no surprise Michael Fennelly played at midfield, where he had a huge impact. Inside the first 22 minutes he claimed nine important possessions, while Richie Hogan started at No11 and had Kilkenny's first two points from play inside the tenth minute.

Meanwhile, at the back Kilkenny got the match-ups they wanted and they got them right, electing to go man for man with the Tipperary forwards and winning most of the key battles. Paul Murphy was outstanding at corner-back on Lar Corbett, Padraig Walsh had a fantastic game, justifying Brian Cody's decision to include him, but Bonner Maher who was so influential for Tipp in the drawn game was never allowed exert the same influence this time around by Kieran Joyce, thoroughly vindicating Cody's decision to start him at centre half-back.

Tipperary never opened up Kilkenny to the same extent that they did in the drawn match, but they did create goal chances in the opening period. JJ Delaney made a fantastic hook on Callanan when he looked to be clear in on goal in the 17th minute, and the Kilkenny defence's willingness and ability to funnel back and get bodies inside their own 'D' denied John O'Dwyer another opportunity shortly afterwards.

Yet Tipperary kept on probing and looking for the gaps. They finally got their rewards when a sublime pass from Lar Corbett to Seamus Callanan saw him coolly finish to the net in the 28th minute to put Tipperary two points clear. With James Woodlock having his hands full with Conor Fogarty, Shane McGrath was the one taking the fight to Kilkenny in the middle of the field.

At the restart, Kilkenny's intent was evident. They made the better start, hitting the first five points and seizing the momentum Callanan's goal seemed to have given Tipp. It took Eamon O'Shea's side ten minutes to register their first point on the board in the second half, and with so many of their forwards struggling to make an impact they were always chasing it from there. Fennelly and Conor Fogarty were winning the midfield battle and no Tipperary forward seemed to be able to exert the influence that Colin Fennelly and Richie Power appeared able to do at the other end of the field.

Tipperary dodged a bullet when John Power's goal-bound shot hit James Barry on the helmet in the 51st minute and it now seemed to be Kilkenny who carried the greater goal threat. Kieran Bergin and Brendan Maher were heroic at the back for Tipperary and with 12 minutes left there was still only the bare minimum between the sides. The next goal was always going to be critical and it was Richie Power who struck the decisive blow, showing all his class and experience to finish past Darren Gleeson when the opportunity presented itself.

Sensing Tipp were on the ropes, five minutes later Kilkenny had their second goal when John Power was in the right place at the right time just when it appeared Gleeson had averted the danger. Six behind with just seven minutes of normal time remaining, Tipperary's race appeared to be run. Yet they kept plugging away and when Callanan goaled to leave just two between the sides with four minutes, including stoppages, left to be played, Kilkenny still had work to do to close it out.

Huge credit has to go to Brian Cody and the Kilkenny management for winning the tactical battle and negating the Tipperary attack to the extent that they did. Lar, Bonner Maher and Bubbles O'Dwyer never scaled the heights of their performances last time out and Seamus Callanan spent the second half living off scraps, never getting the service Tipp were able to provide him in the drawn match. Hindsight is 20-20 and Eamon O'Shea may wonder if he should have made changes up front earlier, given how Lar, Bubbles and Gearoid Ryan in particular seemed to be struggling. Nonetheless Kilkenny played with such intensity at the back, I'm not sure it would have made any significant difference.

Of the ten All-Irelands he has been at the helm, none will have felt as sweet as this one for Cody. It truly is his greatest achievement as a manager given the way he's had to mould, mix and match to put this team together even when it appeared Father Time was catching up with many of his key lieutenants.

What struck me all year though is how a new wave of leaders on the field have emerged - Paul Murphy in the full-back line, Cillian Buckley at No7, Richie Hogan at midfield and TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly in attack. These players have consistently delivered and regardless of the inevitable retirements, Kilkenny will still be a force to be reckoned with.

Whether or not Brian Cody will be in charge remains to be seen but I wouldn't be at all surprised if now is the time he decides to walk away. What he has achieved as a manager will never be surpassed and given the drive and willpower he has shown, we shouldn't really be surprised that once again Kilkenny stand atop the hurling summit.

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