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Kilkenny transition on track as Cody's kittens bare claws

Martin Breheny examines how an injection of young talent has provided new momentum

Luke Scanlon, seen here in action against Tipperary’s Alan Flynn, is making his mark for Kilkenny this year. Photo: Sportsfile
Luke Scanlon, seen here in action against Tipperary’s Alan Flynn, is making his mark for Kilkenny this year. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It still ranks as one of the biggest upsets in underage hurling history, the evening Westmeath beat Kilkenny in the Leinster U-21 championship.

The momentous event occurred in May 2016 when Eddie Brennan took a highly rated Kilkenny team to Mullingar for what was regarded as a routine engagement. Instead, it delivered a massive shock as Westmeath, managed by Adrian Moran, won by two points.

The wider hurling community were delighted for Westmeath but, inevitably, the post-match analysis focused on Kilkenny and why a team that featured several of the 2014 All-Ireland minor winners failed this particular test.

There was no obvious answer. Westmeath lost to Dublin in their next game and, as if to underline that it wasn't an especially high-quality Leinster championship, Dublin lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Galway who, in turn, were demolished by Waterford in the final.

As the Kilkenny coach pulled out of Cusack Park on that May evening two years ago, onlookers assumed that few of its passengers would ever don the black-and-amber jersey as seniors.

Embedded

Last Sunday, four of them were among the 20 that beat Wexford in the Allianz League semi-final, while four others played in the earlier rounds of this transformative season in Kilkenny. Several of them were, of course, aboard last year's U-21 team which reached the All-Ireland final where they lost to Limerick.

The story of how Kilkenny have morphed from a squad of long-established and highly decorated household names to one where few outside the county would recognise many of them is not embedded in All-Ireland underage success, but rather in a steady flow of individuals who are now coalescing successfully with the experienced wing, headed by TJ Reid, Walter Walsh, Eoin Murphy, Cillian Buckley, Pádraig Walsh and Conor Fogarty.

Two others, Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly, are on overseas Armagh duty at present, while injury continues to keep Richie Hogan out.

So when Kilkenny line up against Tipperary tomorrow, it will be a much-changed team from that which exited the All-Ireland race against Waterford last July.

Seven demanding League games have road-tested the newcomers to an extent where Kilkenny supporters now believe that they are ready for whatever is thrown at them either tomorrow or in the Championship campaign.

Talk of Kilkenny dipping into a trough has stopped, although it was never very prevalent among the Nowlan Park faithful, who believed implicitly in what Brian Cody was doing.

So are the new brigade, who have made such a big impression this spring? Richie Leahy (Rower-Inistioge) has been one of the main success stories, growing in influence and confidence with each outing.

Promoted to the senior squad after scoring six points against Wexford in last year's Leinster U-21 final, he came on as a sub against Waterford in the qualifier game and, while Kilkenny lost in extra-time, he did enough to show that he was ready for a permanent step up.

Still only 21, his name is likely to feature on Kilkenny team sheets for a long time to come. He was partnered at midfield last Sunday by James Maher (St Lachtains's), whose career would almost certainly be more advanced if he hadn't suffered a nasty knee injury in a farmyard accident two years ago.

Conor Delaney (Erin's Own) and Enda Morrissey (Bennettsbridge) have grown in stature as wing-backs, with captain, Cillian Buckley locking the line in between them.

Delaney was full-back on the All-Ireland winning minor team if 2014, but has looked very much at home at right half-back this season while Morrissey has been equally effective on the other side.

Paddy Deegan (22) was at midfield last year but is now doing well at left corner-back. His versatility has seen him fill a variety of positions for O'Loughlin Gaels, and with Kilkenny now working the ball out of defence more than used to be the case, his adaptability suits the new roll well.

John Donnelly (Thomastown), Luke Scanlon (James Stephens), Alan Murphy (Glenmore), Martin Keoghan, (Tullaroan), Pat Lyng (Rower-Inistioge), Darren Brennan (St Lachtain's) and Liam Blanchfield (Bennettsbridge) were all aboard the U-21 squad last year.

Blanchfield launched his senior career in 2016 and made quite an impact when scoring three points in the All-Ireland semi-final replay with Waterford.

Bill Sheehan (Dicksboro), Conor Browne (James Stephens), Robert Lennon (Bennettsbridge), Ollie Walsh (Dicksboro), Conor O'Shea (Clara), Joe Lyng (Rower-Inistioge) and Conor Martin (Emeralds) are others who have seen action this year.

And while Ger Aylward won an All-Star award in 2015, his progress was halted by a series of injuries. He is now fully recovered and quickly regaining power.

There's a palpable sense of anticipation in Kilkenny, which won't in any way alter if Tipperary win tomorrow.

Former GAA president Nickey Brennan, who watches the action from the press box these days in his role with Kilkenny Community Radio, believes this is the biggest transition Kilkenny for undergone for a long time, not just in terms of personnel but also in approach.

"The one thing that hasn't changed is the workrate and effort. It's as if the new lads have inherited it. With Brian in charge that was always going to the same. It's standing to them again," he said.

Irish Independent

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