Wednesday 12 December 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Win proves sporting logic doesn't apply to Cody or his Cats

Analysis

8 April 2018; Kilkenny manager Brian Cody before the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Final match between Kilkenny and Tipperary at Nowlan Park in Kilkenny. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
8 April 2018; Kilkenny manager Brian Cody before the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Final match between Kilkenny and Tipperary at Nowlan Park in Kilkenny. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

As this hurling league final moved into injury-time, a trio of incidents displayed the game in a microcosm. First, as Tipperary sought a goal, Kilkenny attacker Martin Keoghan, deep in his own defence, flung himself at a pass and diverted it away from the danger zone.

Next, Tipp's Ronan Maher tried to shake Liam Blanchfield with a shoulder but just bounced off the Kilkenny sub. Finally, TJ Reid ranged back into his own half-back line, won possession and earned a free which put the kibosh on the favourites' hopes.

The first incident was significant because the 19-year-old Keoghan's dash and verve epitomise the spirit which enabled this unusually-unfancied Cats team to recover from last year's disappointments and a shaky start to 2018.

Blanchfield's steadfastness illustrated the way Kilkenny outfought and outmuscled Tipperary in Nowlan Park. The disparity in hunger and enthusiasm between the teams was glaring.

And that third moment? In injury-time TJ Reid was setting the seal on one of the most remarkable individual campaigns in league history. When Kilkenny were trounced by Clare in their second game, relegation looked more likely than a first league title since 2014. The loss meant they'd won just two of their last 12 competitive outings, the county's worst run in living memory.

Kilkenny's kids were floundering. So Reid put the team up on his back and provided an object lesson in what an experienced star owes his younger colleagues.

It wasn't just the scoring totals - the 1-11 against Waterford, the 0-12 in the close shave versus Offaly, the 0-15 in both the semi and the final - spectacular though these were. It was the sense Reid gave of leading the team from the front.

We take his unremitting accuracy from frees for granted but plenty of the Ballyhale man's dead-ball scores come from borderline territory. Or at least borderline territory for somebody else.

Reid has also been irresistible in general play. Yesterday, on the half-hour he won a difficult ball, got up off his knees and lashed over a point from the left wing while under pressure. On the stroke of half-time, he slipped past two challenges, cruised down the sideline and found the target again.

Seven minutes into the second half he was working back in his own half, a long clearance leading to a John Donnelly point that put Kilkenny three clear. Just before the hour, a superb Reid pass picked out Walter Walsh whose point put Kilkenny seven up.

Walsh has also been instrumental in turning things round and his crucial goal 20 seconds after the restart was satisfyingly old-school. The high fetch, beeline towards goal and piledriving finish made him look like a Christy Heffernan tribute act.

That goal wasn't the only thing which sparked sensations of déjà vu.

Kilkenny's dominance in the 21st century makes it easy to forget that, unlike similarly successful Kerry and Dublin football teams, they didn't always enter their biggest games as favourites. The Cody era has been, in part, defined by games where Tipperary were fancied to topple their neighbours but fell short as though mesmerised.

All week we heard about Tipperary not having won in Nowlan Park since 2008 and of the four league finals they'd lost in the years since. These were mentioned not as grim warnings but as contrasts with the impending Tipp victory predicted by almost everybody. Instead, the famines continued.

Ger Loughnane's suggestion that Kilkenny's last two All-Irelands owed something to the mystique surrounding Cody's teams was astute.

Last year the aura seemed to have been dispelled, as Waterford and Wexford broke through against the Cats. But this triumphant league campaign will see it return in spades.

Kilkenny's recent patchy form by their own standards at underage level, no All-Ireland U-21 title since 2008 and only one appearance in the last seven minor deciders, meant the pipeline looked to be running dry. Yet this year's league has brought on several young players to a massive extent.

It's incredible how youthful some of these Kilkenny kids are.

Keoghan is still in his teens while Donnelly, a forward with a seasoned opportunist's eye for a score, was his team-mate on the 2016 county minor team.

Both look like contenders for Young Hurler of the Year, though the current favourite for that award is prodigious midfielder Richie Leahy who's still U-21 this year.

Leahy was outstanding on the Kilkenny U-21 team which reached last year's All-Ireland final, as was Conor Delaney who's been a model of unobtrusive efficiency at right half-back for the seniors.

Corner-back Paddy Deegan and midfielder James Maher, both superb yesterday, are grizzled veterans from the Kilkenny U-21 team of two years ago. And though Blanchfield's heroics in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final replay mean he's not a new boy, he is still just 21 and made a big impact when introduced yesterday.

We may be witnessing the birth of a new black and amber generation.

Limerick and Clare may have mastered Kilkenny at U-21 level in recent years but you wonder if those counties can get as much out of their wonderkids as Cody is extracting from his fledglings. The Top Cat has always known how to polish a diamond in the rough.

Predictions that Kilkenny were due a spell in the doldrums had one fatal flaw. They presumed Brian Cody could be bound by the laws of sporting logic.

Yet there he was yesterday, the fire undimmed, the focus unremitting, the finest manager in the history of the GAA doing what nobody does better. Should he win this year's Liam MacCarthy Cup, it will be his greatest achievement.

Kilkenny are not the finished article. But they don't always need to be the finished article. Sometimes they just need to be Kilkenny.

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