Thursday 18 January 2018

Controlling Kilkenny's conveyor belt that keeps on giving

Cats' age-profile never dips too low as Cody makes stream of emerging talent strain at leash until he is certain they are ready

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody
Cillian Buckley, Kilkenny, in action against Seamus Harnedy, Cork
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The enduring strength of Kilkenny hurling manifested itself in a couple of different ways last weekend. In Croke Park on Sunday afternoon there was the almost obligatory presence of a Kilkenny club captain accepting a cup for an All-Ireland title.

This time it was Bennettsbridge laying claim to junior honours, following on from the success of Rower-Inistioge last year, Clara in 2013, St Lachtain's in 2010 and Dicksboro back in 2006.

There was no representation in the junior final but success in that grade too has been steadily stockpiling since the competition's inception in the middle of the last decade.

Thomastown in 2013, St Patrick's Ballyragget in 2012, Conahy Shamrocks in 2008, Danesfort in 2006 and Galmoy back in 2005 have all made success at home count in their province and beyond.

All told Kilkenny clubs have made off with 10 All-Ireland titles in junior and intermediate club hurling over the last 11 years. You know the effect a rising tide has.

No matter how far down the food chain you go the appetite and the portions remain the same.

Supremacy

The evening before in Pairc Ui Rinn provided even more telling evidence of black and amber supremacy. Brian Cody had joked about checking the odds on their opponents over the next few weeks given the scale of absentees the Cats were facing.

But the clamour for positions on the first 15, and perhaps more pointedly the first 20, is very much on after Saturday night.

The winter exodus may carry more significance for positions beyond No 15 through to No 20, but that too is a status worth fighting hard for.

The striking thing about the Kilkenny team that started was the age profile. There may have been five retirements in the off-season, four injuries and five players with Ballyhale Shamrocks missing from last year's squad, but Cody still managed to field a team that didn't dip below the age of 22.

It was a distinction that Kerry and Kilkenny had as they swept to their All-Ireland titles - there was no U-21 player on either squad last September.

On Saturday night the average age of the Kilkenny players used was 25.5. At 22, Padraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley were the youngest and at 32, Jackie Tyrrell was the team's senior citizen.

But in between there was a core of hard-edged players in their mid-20s.

Even fringe players, pressing for higher placings on the order of merit like Tomas Keogh (28), Mark Kelly (26), JonJo Farrell (26) and Matthew Ruth (27), matched that profile. It is entirely consistent with Cody's approach for much of his 17 seasons in inter-county management.

It is a staggering statistic that he has only ever promoted two players to senior championship that have come straight out of minor - JJ Delaney and James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick.

Most others have had to bide their time and wait. Derek Lyng, Martin Comerford, Brian Hogan and Eddie Brennan are among those Kilkenny players never to feature at inter-county minor level but they finished with 27 All-Ireland medals between them.

Cody's success has been to adopt that patient approach. In another county some of the players Kilkenny turned to on Saturday night might already have been trialled by now but with the exception of Ruth, who was injured for much of last season, they were all part of last year's squad.

Walter Walsh's performance was perhaps the most interesting of all. The perception is that Walsh hasn't progressed sufficiently since his daring 2012 All-Ireland final replay raid on Galway.

There were signs in the early stages of last year's league that his pace and power might be more suited to wing-forward but at the height of the summer he struggled in too many games, especially the Leinster final against Dublin.

He didn't resurface until the drawn All-Ireland final against Tipperary but, pitched at corner-forward, that didn't work out for him either.

Against Cork, however, his industry and power plays were among the most striking features of the Kilkenny display. He scored three points, had a big role in creating the first goal but his effort to chase back and dispossess Mark Ellis in his own half at one stage in the second period reflected a man on a very big mission this year. He clearly doesn't want to be left behind.

Neither does Mark Kelly. Related to both DJ Carey and Richie Hogan, Kelly is another player Cody is quite happy to give more time too, having first introduced him to a Kilkenny championship squad in 2012 at the age of 24.

He started against Offaly, Galway and Limerick in last year's championship, and the pace and strength he showed in such abundance on Saturday night clearly appeal to Cody.

Last week Tyrrell spoke of the "magic" of the black and amber jersey, how uplifting an effect it can have, how the same players can look a little more ordinary at club level. For Kilkenny's opening bow of 2015 that sentiment was never more relevant.

Irish Independent

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