Comment - Can Brian Cody rebuild his crumbling empire?
Cats boss has made fools of doomsayers before, but faltering effort to replace lost legends suggests chastening All-Ireland defeat was no aberration
Many predicted it would come sooner but Brian Cody's magic wand may finally have expired. After building an indestructible band of brothers and miraculously re-energising Kilkenny for nearly two decades the ship is hitting rocks regularly, and the biggest challenge of Cody's managerial career has just got bigger.
Having watched Cody's Cats mentally and physically outmuscle every pretender to their throne on the way to 11 of the last 18 All-Ireland titles it's alarming to now see the boot on the other foot, none more so than yesterday when Clare obliterated them.
It's hard not liken it to a bully taking candy from a baby only for that baby to grow and learn before returning to repay the favour some years later. The rest of the hurling world has grown tired of oppression and bitten back.
And while Kilkenny's Messiah has reinvented the wheel time after time, with new players picking up the ball and running with it as legends step away, the dressing-room he now surveys looks scarcely recognisable.
Gone are some of the greatest hurlers of a generation, and the slide expected to arrive after the 2010 and 2013 campaigns may finally be materialising as the conveyor belts screech to a halt.
"There are players on our panel who haven't been seen yet who will be top players, and quickly," a defiant Cody said after last year's nine-point All-Ireland defeat to Tipperary. Does what was viewed as passion then now read like desperation?
Aside from St Kieran's College winning five of the last seven All-Ireland Colleges titles, the supply lines have clearly dried up at underage level compared to the golden era, and the quality of player at Cody's disposal is not comparable with the past - nor could it ever be.
Watching from the sidelines yesterday as a talent-laden Banner side, many of whom were part of three-in-a-row All-Ireland success at U-21, gave Kilkenny a taste of their own medicine must have been a humbling experience.
It's long been asked how good are Kilkenny if TJ Reid and Richie Hogan are being kept under wraps, and yesterday we found out. After 30 minutes Hogan was the only forward to score from play despite his anonymity as Oisin O'Brien repeated last year's League semi-final roasting.
Watching the 2014 Hurler of the Year, Kilkenny's most consistent player in the past three seasons, being called ashore midway through the second half sends an air of optimism around the hurling fraternity that this is not the old Kilkenny - they are now beatable.
It seemed that if Reid wasn't going to do the necessary in attack, then there were few other capable volunteers. While it will take time to mould the next generation - guys like Liam Blanchfield and Richie Leahy - there's a growing over-reliance on experienced faces.
Padraig Walsh and Eoin Murphy never gave up and recently-retired Kilkenny legend Eoin Larkin showed his frustration with the younger crop with this Tweet in the aftermath: "Not good enough from KK, still reliant on experienced lads. Younger lads need to have the attitude NEVER give up, too many standing around."
Watching Clare's first goal will make Cody shudder. Noel Hickey, Michael Kavanagh and JJ Delaney wouldn't have let the ball near their own square, let alone an opposition player, but there stood the unmarked Aaron Cunningham with no master of the house in sight.
It's a bad sign when your goalkeeper is becoming your most cherished asset and despite Murphy's heroics in goal, much like last year's All-Ireland final display, the 13-point deficit was still Cody's biggest loss in his 216 League and SHC games in charge.
Next on that list is the 12-point drubbing at the hands of Dublin in the 2011 League final - where they were branded 'Croker Chokers' on the front page of this paper- and we all know what happened next as those words were subsequently eaten on their way to back-to-back All-Irelands.
Much like then, there were key players missing but to a much lesser degree as doubts surround Michael Fennelly's inter-county career, while Ger Aylward is coming back from a year's lay-off due to a torn cruciate knee ligament. Again, more questions than answers.
Cody always responds to adversity but the landscape has changed. And while wake-up calls and kicks up the a*** are needed, a worrying trend is developing.
While it's only February there are clear signs that the 2016 final loss was not an aberration.
The hurling wheel is turning and one man trying to force a power shift is Davy Fitzgerald. While signs suggest that Cody's Midas touch might finally be wearing off, the opposite is the case in Wexford as a revolution brews.
Liam Griffin, who oversaw their Liam MacCarthy win 21 years ago, felt that if Fitzgerald could lead the Model to promotion from Division 1B it would top his All-Ireland win with Clare in 2013, and he has one foot in the top tier already.
Anyone in Salthill yesterday could see a different Wexford - both in the stands and on the pitch. Gone was the general apathy and mental fragility of recent seasons; in its place an unbreakable will that made you think they always had a chance of turning around a seven-point deficit against Galway. And they duly delivered.
The yelps from the large travelling support, who made a 550km round trip, at the final whistle and subsequent pitch invasion had a Championship feel to it, and as Fitzgerald and his players soaked in the atmosphere with their adoring supporters it was hard not to picture two counties at different ends of the spectrum.
Wexford are emerging from the shadows with an energy and an optimism in the sunny south east about their prospects, while many on Noreside are predicting some time out of the limelight as Cody aims to rebuild a crumbling empire.
And barring an almighty Leinster quarter-final upset, Cody and Fitzgerald will cross swords come summer time. If that doesn't whet the appetite nothing will.
Are the Cats running out of lives or is Cody braced for one last stand?