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Cody's Cats in danger of losing aura of supremacy

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Brian Cody

Brian Cody

SPORTSFILE

Brian Cody

Before the league began last month, Ger Loughnane cast his eyes over the prospects of the top ten counties for the season. Naturally, Loughnane opened with an analysis of Kilkenny before measuring his assessments on everyone else from that core evidence of the All-Ireland champions.

Loughnane detailed how the league had always been so important for Brian Cody but he firmly believed that the landscape had changed. Then Loughnane outlined his opening evidence: "The spate of retirements of so many of their dressing-room and on-field generals has left them vulnerable," he said. "So many counties have been preparing and waiting for Kilkenny to reach this juncture."

After last weekend's 12-point beating by Tipperary, Loughnane was in no doubt that Kilkenny have reached that juncture. "It's hard to believe there are so many ordinary players on the current team," stated Loughnane on Monday. "There are players in the black and amber who are barely of intermediate standard. Apart from Richie Hogan, it was hard to make an argument for any of yesterday's forwards being good enough. The speed at which the well has run dry in Kilkenny is encouraging for every other county. But it's alarming for the Cats."

Loughnane did temper his tone through an admission that Kilkenny have big names to return but it still didn't dilute his overall assessment. "Kilkenny do have players to come back but they are nowhere near as formidable as they once were," he said. "The aura is getting more dented all the time. Before the league began, I put forward the view that the big question of the spring would be has the Kilkenny juggernaut ground to a halt? It hasn't come to a halt yet, but it's definitely creaking."

Intimidating

The machine has definitely slowed down. For the first time under Cody, Kilkenny have lost three games in succession. Richie Hogan has hit 56pc of Kilkenny's scores. They haven't looked the intimidating force they once were.

In a league this competitive, this league campaign was always going to be a struggle with the amount of bodies Kilkenny were missing. "In the overall scheme of events, the squad isn't as strong as it can be at the moment so I wouldn't fear that the ship is sinking," says former player Eddie Brennan.

"You also have to put last weekend into context. Tipperary had to win. If Tipp couldn't win that game by five or six points, they were going nowhere. Kilkenny were nowhere near full strength but I was still disappointed by the body language of some of the new guys. It was a great opportunity but some of them didn't look as up for that match as they should have been given who they were playing."

Only seven of the team started last year's All-Ireland final replay and the thrust of Loughnane's criticism on Monday was aimed at the other players, especially the rookies. In his opinion, the current team "is nowhere near good enough" because there is "very little quality" and "most worryingly of all, very little new quality".

Is that fair? "To a degree, it is unfair trying to assess the new guys at the moment," says former player John Power. "They're in at the deep end straight away. Kilkenny had that comfort for years. You could bring in two or three new lads and they had a lovely environment to hurl in. Nobody was critical of them because the team was able to win.

"It was like letting a couple of pups off with a bunch of dogs. They were being naturally trained, to a degree, to fight. Now there are few mature dogs on the field to train the pups. There are pups everywhere now and we're still trying to judge them. Jonjo Farrell has had limited game-time up to now and we expect him to go out and win league games.

"Kilkenny have had some of the greatest players ever and you're assessing the new players on the back of that standard. When you have the other lads back, it will be easier to assess the new lads. Then you'll see if they can come up to the mark."

Brennan can understand that pressure. "I mean no disrespect but it's easier to hurl with Eoin Larkin or Richie Power beside you. When you're trying to make an impression, or a name for yourself, you tend to be tense. You're trying to make things happen for yourself as opposed to contributing fully to the team. That is the difficulty Kilkenny find themselves in at the moment."

Questions about Kilkenny's mortality, or when their total domination is ever going to end, have been asked a thousand times but Kilkenny have kept finding the answers. The current fears have also been offset given that Richie Power, Michael and Colin Fennelly, TJ Reid, Joey Holden, Eoin Larkin, Michael Rice, Conor Fogarty, and possibly Henry Shefflin, are yet to return. Some have huge mileage clocked but Kilkenny will still be a different animal with those players.

When Loughnane talks about "the aura getting more and more dented", it is heavily related to his comments in February about losing so many "dressing-room and on-field generals". The five players who retired had accumulated 38 All-Ireland medals.

Losing so much experience was always going to have an impact but where does that debate really start and end? After the 2011 All-Ireland final, five players with 33 All-Ireland medals also retired but Kilkenny still retained their All-Ireland title.

The loss of JJ Delaney is a psychological boost to other teams because he was such an institution. Yet Kilkenny also moved on last year effectively without Shefflin and Tommy Walsh. The average age of the starting team for the All-Ireland replay was just over 26. "In a kind of sly, unique way," said Jackie Tyrrell afterwards, "Brian (Cody) has moulded another team to carry on again."

It was easy to understand Tyrrell's point. The half-back line made more combined plays than any other line, with the three players (Kieran Joyce, Padraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley) amongst Kilkenny's top five performers.

Yet it was Kilkenny's fifth different half-back line of the summer. Walsh hadn't started a game there since Offaly in June. Joyce hadn't started a game all summer, only getting game-time once, against Offaly. And all of a sudden, Cody had formed a formidable looking half-back line with an average age of just 24.

"No matter how many players they lose, Kilkenny will still always carry the fear factor," says Power. "The mindset is that we are always good enough to win. You saw that with Joyce last year.

"A fella from another county might crumble in that position but Joyce knew he was good enough because he is from Kilkenny and because he had that belief instilled in him."

Kilkenny will always produce quality players but the conveyor belt has still slowed down. "Kilkenny haven't the strength in depth or the same quality that was once there," says Brennan. "We always produced a Richie Power or a Richie Hogan but that supply of exceptional forwards has also dried up. If we got a couple of injuries now to big names, we could find ourselves under pressure."

Mentality

Whatever happens, Kilkenny will still trust in themselves and what they have always done. The belief and winning mentality which Power speaks about will offer another balm to any concerns. Ballyhale Shamrocks were considered a team past their best in Kilkenny but they produced another devastating performance on Tuesday to win another All-Ireland club title.

The power that Kilkenny team's belief can generate was never more evident than with last year's minor team. Hammered by Dublin in their opening game, when they only scored 0-4, they completely revamped their side and went on to win an All-Ireland.

Kilkenny may be less intimidating. The new players may not be as good. The machine may be creaking but Kilkenny will still stay guided by their core principles of honesty and hard work that has driven them so far under Cody.

And trust in themselves and in their conviction that there is still plenty of open road ahead.

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