'It's always the responsibility of management to ensure that you are going out there ready to play'
Heading into his 20th campaign, Kilkenny maestro Brian Cody admits there’s a perception his team are off the pace
There's something fitting about talking to Brian Cody in the grand surrounds of St Kieran's College, Kilkenny - the county's most famous hurling man in its most famous hurling nursery.
All around the walls, there are reminders of their glorious past. Cody, Carter, Carey are all there. There's many others too all dotted around the place, serving as a reminder of the standards expected behind those thick walls. But it's in a picture-perfect library off one of the labyrinth of halls in the old place that Cody holds court.
It's never been in doubt that the Kilkenny manager could happily see out his days in charge of the Cats without ever doing another interview but there's a time and a place for everything.
And the centenary of the Top Oil-sponsored Leinster Schools Senior Hurling Championship was just that.
The wheels are already in motion for the new campaign and, even after 19 seasons in charge to date, 2018 will be very different to anything he has experienced before.
With a Walsh Cup that starts before the turn of the year, a condensed league series, a complete halt in activity in April that Cody reckons will see two rounds of the Kilkenny club championship played before a round-robin championship in Leinster, the year will throw up all sorts of new challenges.
"The amount of time for training is certainly cut back," Cody said.
"The Walsh Cup is very, very early, you have the league then straight away and it's Sunday after Sunday pretty much.
"April is then club month. Once you hit Leinster Championship, it's Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
"The amount of training you'll be doing in between? You won't be, essentially. You'll play a match, recover and then get ready for the next game. That will happen for five or six weeks. It's important that between now and Walsh Cup, teams will be looking to get a base for themselves."
Kilkenny will be back to the drawing board. The glass-half-full version of their 2017 championship is that they brought would-be All-Ireland finalists Waterford to extra-time in the qualifiers. For Cody, that's too rosy a summation of their season.
I would say we weren't as competitive as we would need to be in the past year. We never really played at a level that was going to allow us to be really, really competitive.
"It's a tribute to the players without a shadow of a doubt that they did bring Waterford to extra-time; because with 10 minutes to go it looked as if that wasn't going to happen.
"The resilience they showed was excellent and it was a good achievement on that day to do that.
"But overall through league and championship with a couple of exceptions, we never played at the level we would be expecting of ourselves. I won't put my finger on exactly what it was, but it's always the responsibility of management to ensure that you are going out there ready to play.
"Essentially it was my responsibility and the responsibility of the management team working together to do as much as humanly possible to make us more competitive next year. That's going to be difficult obviously, because the level of competition out there now is very, very serious, which is great."
On the face of it, Kilkenny and Cody are facing into a difficult spring. Two of his established stars in Colin Fennelly and Paul Murphy are unavailable until May due to peacekeeping duties. Michael Fennelly is set to go again but, as has been the case over the past number of seasons, his availability will be determined by his ongoing battles with injury.
Recently-retired Jackie Tyrrell penned what was the most revelling insight yet into what drove Cody's great team over the past decade or so that was brutally honest on Kilkenny's perception of some of their rivals. Cody hasn't read it and won't be drawn on any of the headline take-aways other than to say it's a "personal opinion".
But he can see why there might be a perception that Kilkenny will struggle to reach the heights of the past in 2018.
"If you look at our record in the last number of years at U-21, we haven't had success. We got to the final this year and we were well beaten by a very good Limerick team. In the past number of years we haven't got out of Leinster, so the general thinking would be that it's going to be very difficult for us to get back being really competitive maybe for a couple of years.
"Obviously that's not the mentality we would be approaching it with ourselves. We would be approaching it and doing everything that's humanly possible to get back. It starts essentially with the Walsh Cup for us. We realise that we are not in the top four or five teams at the moment, because the records are there to say who is and who isn't. The challenge is there for us, but it's a good challenge to have in front of us.
"You've so many teams. I don't have to list them out because everybody knows them.
"I mean it's not the first time it's happened either. You go back to 2013, we got knocked out in the quarter-final as well. So you could never presume that... we can never say, 'Look, quarter-final. We'll get there...'
"You can never say anything like that.
"It's always been a challenge to get over those matches. We were beaten in Leinster, that put us down that road. When you're beaten, you're beaten by a better team."
Cody agrees that the challenge in Leinster is as great as it has been at any time during his reign but points out that Kilkenny have been thought to be down before, only to rise again.
"I've probably been there a while but it has been presumed more than once that we were going to go away by people who consider these things.
"So there have been many challenges. It's a challenge every single year.
"The great thing about this sport and every sport is that the challenge is always there.
"But is the challenge great now? Of course it is."