Thursday 23 November 2017

Henry Shefflin: Brian Cody will go to every player in the panel to make sure the heads are right

If there's a player with the potential to fill that gap left by JJ Delaney's departure, it's Joey Holden SPORTSFILE
If there's a player with the potential to fill that gap left by JJ Delaney's departure, it's Joey Holden SPORTSFILE
Wexford's Conor McDonald will prove a serious challenge for Kilkenny SPORTSFILE

Henry Shefflin

I bumped into TJ Reid at Carroll's diesel pumps in Knocktopher a few days back and, being honest, I was reluctant to probe too deeply into how Kilkenny might be shaping up.

We'd be really good friends, but I'm quite conscious of being outside the circle now. This is a new place for me and it's particularly hitting home this week that I'm an ex-Kilkenny hurler now. So I just kept things to general chit-chat with TJ, knowing full well how, in the week of a championship game, a player doesn't really want to be giving too much away.

Now that I'm working in the media, I'd be keen that lads wouldn't think I'm fishing for information on that front. So while my head might be full of different questions designed to just satisfy my own curiosity, it didn't feel fair to go there.

This will be my first time at a Kilkenny game as a supporter then since retirement and, of course, it's going to feel strange. Yes, part of me will probably yearn to be out there, wearing the jersey. But I think an even bigger part of me understands that I've had my time.

You can't go on forever and I got so much out of being a Kilkenny hurler over the guts of 17 years, I'm very happy now that I made the right decision. Not just for myself, but for Kilkenny too.

Of course, I've been missing the buzz of going in early to training, the simple, tactile thing of taking shots, practising frees. Because this week has a purity to it. The heavy training is over, all the drills are skills-based and there's no huge physical contact now. You can feel like a young child again going in with the sense of anticipation.

Different personalities will be feeling different things this week. Some will feel only excitement at what's coming, others will be wrestling with nerves. To that end, the mind is as important as the body. You want to feel light on your feet, almost like a spring calf going out on the field. So everything becomes about touch and mind.

I miss the chat in Langton's after training too, trying to second-guess management on what the team will be or just figuring out what the opposition might have planned.

Last Thursday I had a meeting in Galway and, driving up, it struck me that that's a journey I probably wouldn't have taken if I was still playing for Kilkenny. In the week of a championship game, I would always have sorted my work diary to make sure I could properly focus for the challenge coming.

I know I'll certainly miss putting on the Kilkenny tracksuit tomorrow morning and feeling a part of a special group.

Brian Cody will have been busy doing his job this week, having a quiet word in players' ears in that gentle, understated way of his. Just getting a sense of how lads are feeling with people barely even noticing that he's doing it. Over the week, there's a fair chance he'll have got to every single player in the panel, just making sure that heads are sound.

So I see Kilkenny being in a good place this week. Richie Power will be a major loss but, otherwise, all of the other big players are back. People have been questioning the impact of losing so many strong voices from the dressing room, but the likes of Richie Hogan, TJ Reid and Cillian Buckley all stepped up to the mark last year and I think their leadership qualities can come to the fore even more now.

And the players will be hungry for hurling. Their last competitive game with Kilkenny was at the end of March, so they've really been three months building towards this. They've played maybe a couple of club matches and one challenge game in that time, all of which gives this strange sense of Kilkenny being in the long grass despite them being the defending All-Ireland champions.

To me, that suits the team perfectly and I expect a very big performance.

Obviously, JJ Delaney is a massive, massive loss at full-back, but I genuinely believe that if there's a player with the potential to fill that gap it's Joey Holden. Now he'll have a serious test tomorrow with Conor McDonald, but I like the look of the Kilkenny defence as a whole. You've three experienced heads now in Paul Murphy, Jackie Tyrrell and Kieran Joyce.

Then the three newer faces, Joey, Padraig Walsh and Cillian are more than just good hurlers for me. They're really good characters, off the field as well as on. These guys are the future of Kilkenny.

That said, I sense a lot of confidence in Wexford this time. I get the impression they are eager to come to Nowlan Park and take on the champions in their own backyard. This is a rivalry with a huge history, albeit Wexford struggled for most of my career as an inter-county hurler.

Through my time with Kilkenny, the priority was always to try and keep their crowd subdued because Wexford could take a great adrenaline charge from the terraces. Maybe they lost that in the last while, but it returned with a vengeance last year.

So Kilkenny, I don't doubt, will be looking for a quick start tomorrow because there's a great intelligence to the way Wexford are hurling under Liam Dunne now. In Diarmuid O'Keeffe and Liam óg McGovern, they have two really fast, wristy forwards and their direct running at defences was a big weapon for Wexford last year.

McDonald is a top-class player on the edge of the 'square' and I just see Wexford as a team with real structure to their game now. Everything seems to be done very professionally in the camp and it looks to me as if Dunne has got everyone in the county pushing in the one direction.

I always think of him when I remember my first year playing Railway Cup in '99. Leinster had a semi-final against Connacht in Birr and it comes back to me now as a filthy, wet November Sunday morning in Birr. It being a different time in the game, a different world really, let's just say that maybe not everyone had been eating their pasta and hydrating their bodies the night before.

Joe Rabbitte was a big man for Galway back then, one of the best catchers of a ball in the game. He was centre-forward for Connacht that day, all six foot three of him. Liam? I wouldn't imagine he's more than 5' 8" in his socks. Peter Barry was playing wing-back for us, but I remember Dunne telling him before the game, "Peter, just come in behind me for every ball and you'll mop up!"

What he was saying, basically, was that Rabbitte wouldn't be catching any ball that day.

And he didn't. I'd say Peter had the game of his life, just hosing up behind Dunne who made sure that anything coming in just went to ground. Throughout his entire career, Liam Dunne marked bigger men, but had the cuteness and the steel to still become one of the best centre-backs in hurling.

So he and Wexford are dangerous opponents and ones that Kilkenny will know it would be foolish to underestimate. But forewarned is forearmed in this case. I think the champions will be too strong tomorrow.

The game in the Gaelic Grounds will be massive too with the qualifier path so heavily mined, but I think Tipperary are probably particularly determined to go the direct route.

Limerick's character impressed me against Clare, but Tipp - having lost to them in the last two championships - really need to make a statement here.

It's a massive mental test for them and that's an area in which they've previously been questioned. 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer would be a big loss if he misses out (as will Noel McGrath of course), but I've heard that Lar Corbett is absolutely flying in training, so it's Tipp for me.

And I think Galway will just have too much for Laois, having taken great confidence from their replay victory over Dublin.

It's true, Galway have struggled against Laois in previous years and they certainly need to be wary of a team that scored 29 points against Offaly. But this is their opportunity to make a big statement. To be ruthless in other words.

I think they'll take it.

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