Tuesday 20 March 2018

Henry Shefflin: Here are the subtle bits of Brian Cody brilliance that help Kilkenny stay on top

Brian Cody shows his delight after the final whistle in Thurles last Saturday Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Brian Cody shows his delight after the final whistle in Thurles last Saturday Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Henry Shefflin

Jennifer Malone touched the hearts of everyone on Saturday last in Thurles with her consoling gesture to Pauric Mahony and, for me, the image captured the essence of one of the great nights in hurling.

Jennifer is from Kildare but she's a big Kilkenny fan and has followed my career closely, so I know her well and have got that gentle embrace from her at the end of games myself in the past.

I was on the local radio station, KCLR, with her and her mother Donna on Tuesday discussing what she did just after a truly gripping encounter had ended and I mentioned how actions speak louder than words.

There was such power of communication in that one humbling snapshot, maybe what we all felt. Relief from a Kilkenny point of view but genuine sympathy and admiration for Waterford.


Not that they'll want sympathy and Derek McGrath pretty much nailed it afterwards with his distaste for moral victories.

I mentioned last week that I didn't feel Waterford could be distanced from Limerick, Dublin, Clare and even Galway until they actually took down a Kilkenny team in full flight and that their response in this replay could shape their future. With 25 minutes to go and Kilkenny five points clear, I wouldn't have deviated from that view.

But their resilience to chase down Kilkenny deep into added time when a Waterford team in the past might have yielded said so much about their character. They never allowed that feeling that they had left it behind six days earlier to take hold of them. They may well, in time, reflect on it as their most important passage of play in their development.

This was one of the great hurling occasions, great crowd, great atmosphere, lights on and such a sharp edge, especially in the first 25 minutes, that engaged everyone. As a spectator I've been somewhat underwhelmed with the inter-county game since I retired early last year and the tactical direction it appeared to be heading for much of this season concerned me.

But the three games over two weekends have been riveting and uplifting. Everything you would hope for has been there.

Kilkenny supporters can be quiet but the connection with the crowd was very strong from early on, one that probably hasn't been as strong since 2013 when we played Tipperary and then Waterford in qualifier games, even though two more All-Ireland titles have been won since.

I've been waiting for almost two years to sit back and enjoy a game of hurling and an occasion like it. Now I appreciate the Thurles effect. It felt like there was 50,000 there, not 30,000.

In the RTÉ box before Sunday's second semi-final we laughed with Ger Loughnane that there have been two great games in this championship and one of them has even been in Munster!

When the glow receded and analysis began the X-ray vision and surgical hand that Brian Cody can take to a teamsheet was again most apparent. Once more his ability to absorb the lessons and act in a short space of time has made the difference.

I couldn't have contemplated the deep positions that both Richie Hogan and TJ Reid took up because, let's be honest, having your two main marksmen so far from goals looks a risky strategy. But the battle had to be won in the middle early so it was all hands to the pump, even the most creative.

The rumour about the 'real' team began circulating on Saturday morning, though few really believed that it would happen. Yet Liam Blanchfield picked off the first point and the memories of Walter Walsh and John Power unspooled.

Walter's introduction for the 2012 replay is well documented but I was reminded, listening to David Herity on the radio on Sunday evening about the leap that John Power made to make his mark in the 2014 replay against Tipperary.

John had started the Leinster final, subsequently lost his place and had come on in the 72nd minute of the drawn All-Ireland final. But when Brian went away and thought about it John became a central part of the solution. He saw something so many others didn't see.

John was elevated to the 'A' team where, naturally, the confidence of playing beside TJ, his own brother Richie and the likes gave him a boost, he hit three goals in an internal match off Shane Prendergast, who had been injured for much of the year and was just back, to merit inclusion.

That elevation was the confidence trigger. You can't underestimate what it means to a Kilkenny hurler that Brian is putting faith in you, such trust, to do that job. It's the ultimate seal of approval and call to arms. And invariably it's the right call.

On Tuesday night of last week, just before training, Liam might have got the first subtle hint that he was in the frame with a few words. Not as direct as 'you're in' or even 'we're thinking about you' but enough to know he was very much in the frame. Brian has a way that allows some reading between the lines.

That conversation can be empowering, far greater than any psychological hook.

You have to think that Liam's catch at the end to win such an important free stemmed from such empowerment.

Kilkenny had to reach even deeper than the previous six days to pull it out but I felt there was much better support in attack to make the difference. At one stage Richie got a ball out to Mark Bergin to set up a point for Walter and I said to myself 'that wasn't happening much last week.'

They didn't allow themselves to be bullied either which was the first corrective step that needed to be taken.

Walter is emerging as one of the real leaders and one of the most effective players this season. His equalising goal the previous week off his left is one he might not have scored two years ago, but the work he puts into it is facilitating that improvement. If training is timed for 7.0, you're sure to see Walter out practising the skills in Nowlan Park not long after 6.0.

The panel isn't as strong and now with Michael Fennelly unfortunately gone, but the genius of Brian is to make the most of what's there.

I laughed to myself when I heard him talk afterwards about team selection as if he was casually rolling dice.

"Sure we decided to go with that then...."

From the moment he left the field in Croke Park he was thinking long and hard about it.

So the two best teams have made it to the All-Ireland final but it hasn't been straightforward.

Like Waterford the previous week Galway, I felt, were the better team but Tipperary had a little good fortune on their side and those moments of magic from Seamus Callanan and 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer. The latter's goal just gave them that bit more freedom to play.

What struck me most about them though was the tone of Padraic Maher's post-match interview. He spoke for not much more than a minute but in that time he stressed three times that Tipperary hadn't played well.

They hadn't and it was clear that making another final was only moderate compensation for that. I didn't detect a big sense of satisfaction with what they had done and that's a nice way to be preparing for Kilkenny.

It's hard to put a finger on how there is that added steel in Tipperary this year. While Padraic's shoulder on Joe Canning was an indicator of their intent, that's still something we have seen from him before. It's more a general attitude, a collective snarl that says 'we're not taking any step back today' and that feeds into every action.

Losing Joe and Adrian Tuohy was huge for Galway and in a game so physical what would Johnny Glynn have brought?

I cited Micheál Donoghue as a manager under some pressure coming into this season because of the heave against Anthony Cunningham but he won't carry that into 2017.

They've been consistent this year, even in the Leinster final until those last 10 minutes and carried that form through the Clare and Tipperary games.

Like Waterford they died with their boots on and that's a positive way to build more for the future.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport