Saturday 24 February 2018

Kilkenny's business as usual

They don't spend time looking back. In a couple of months they will hold a medal ceremony and the 2015 All-Ireland final won't be mentioned again

‘What split the sides last weekend wasn’t preparation, or even workrate. It was just sheer will and determination’
‘What split the sides last weekend wasn’t preparation, or even workrate. It was just sheer will and determination’
Brian Cody

Damian Lawlor

Tuesday afternoon at St Kieran's College and five young students are busy lining one of the hurling pitches, painting white lines onto a pitch for the next generation of Kilkenny hurlers to train on.

It's 4.0pm and another school day comes to an end. Inside, four of the victorious Kilkenny panel - Michael Rice, Lester Ryan, John Joe Farrell and Michael Walsh - have all returned to work, just one day after they won the All-Ireland title. Indeed, 21 former students from the college have played a part in Kilkenny's latest championship win but there are no obvious signs of exhilaration or anything like it on school grounds.

Deep inside the main building, however, a US TV crew from the CBS primetime TV show 60 Minutes Sports are filming, trying to capture the essence of hurling - and Kilkenny's love affair with it for their audience back home.

Jack Ford is the presenter. He is a former college football star in America and one of the country's top barristers. He took a death penalty case early in his legal career and it transformed his life. Impressed by his media interviews, TV bosses offered Ford a new path and he went on to become one of the leading broadcasters in the US. He is 65 now and has seen it all. He's interviewed Obama twice and knows wannabe presidents like Donald Trump. Yet, there is something that grabs him when he comes to a school in Ireland and sees every second fella walking around with a hurl that looks like an extension of their limbs.

"It's unreal," Ford says. "It's like they're going into Hogwarts and the hurleys in their hands are their wands."

Ford has Irish roots, has always been fascinated by hurling and can see the magic of what Kilkenny are producing in this era. They may never again achieve what they have managed under Brian Cody but they sit well ahead of the rest and it's a position that they will never be too far from.

It comes down to three things: how they prepare for battle, how they always leave the fighting fields assured of honest endeavour, which means that even if they die it's with their boots on, and finally how they conduct themselves when the latest collision is complete. By Tuesday, almost everyone in Kilkenny was getting back about their business. Some of the squad tipped into the city for a few pints and later that night a few went to Ballyhale as it is something of a tradition in the county that the winning captain hosts the rest of the panel.

And that's about it. In a couple of months' time they will hold a medal ceremony and the 2015 All-Ireland final won't be mentioned again. In Galway, where they are still wondering what happened in the second half, the post-mortem might last a little longer and they could spend a few days more drowning their sorrows than the Kilkenny players will celebrating their achievement.

Outside the ground on Sunday last the fuss had already started to die off. Tommy Walsh stood chatting happily to anyone who stopped him outside Jury's Inn. There was no obvious regret on his face as he missed out on another medal. Walsh would still be playing with any other county but all he could talk about was the round of club championship games that will be played today. He was beaming at the prospect - and was at home just a couple of hours later preparing for Tullaroan's game.

Kilkenny don't spend any time looking back. In days gone by, when they had just won another All-Ireland, even the likes of Henry Shefflin were too busy fretting about the challenges that lay ahead the following season to sit back and wallow in the warm glow of victory.

But what split the sides last weekend wasn't preparation, or even work rate. It was just sheer will and determination. Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.

Before the game Galway were remarkably relaxed. Anthony Cunningham mentioned that work ethic would be the single biggest factor in getting his side over the line. Interestingly, despite their second-half disappearing act, it wasn't an easing of the throttle that cost Galway. In fact, both sides made 63 hooks/blocks/tackles during the game. It was simply that Galway lost their composure and Kilkenny . . . well Kilkenny wanted it more.

Much has been made of Jackie Tyrrell's half-time speech - raised voices could be heard from the dressing room - and whatever he said did the trick. Sometimes nothing can beat a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words. As they ran back out onto the field one of their camp said they were looking to turn the screw. They knew exactly what they had to do. Hunt down their opponents, give them no room to breathe. They did that.

They did it even though they had six high-profile retirements this year. And without Richie Power for most of the game. And with two relative newcomers in their full-back line. And Richie Hogan tore a muscle in his quad three weeks beforehand. Eoin Larkin had done nothing but running and stamina training for a fortnight beforehand with a fractured thumb, and Mick Fennelly is constantly dealing with a serious back problem.

Yet they all raised their efforts, the sum of the collective greater than any individual cameos Galway could produce.

They didn't lack for motivation either.

"A lot of us had a point to prove," admits Paul Murphy. "A lot of people were talking about retirements in Kilkenny but we feel we always have a team strong enough to win the All-Ireland and we wanted to show that."

They got the basics right again and upped the ante, something they manage time and time again. Their hooking and blocking, for instance, were top-class.

"Hooking and blocking are skills of hurling," said Brian Cody (pictured left). "I am amused to hear people mention them as if they are almost something of a negative when they are actually a massive skill. They are a key part of the game, as important as the other skills. It's a hugely mental thing as well what we do, you always have to believe and never let your confidence be knocked back. We know we pick up the pieces when we make a mistake and at the end of the day it's about the team, team, team. Our response in the second half was outstanding. But it was not really a question of, 'What will we do about Galway?' It was what will we do ourselves."

Patience was a virtue too. But then again they are long since the kings of that discipline. Think of the arduous route that Kieran Joyce had to negotiate on the way to establishing himself - a road that involved a spell with the Kilkenny footballers, three seasons with the Kilkenny intermediates and a time at UL where he learned to add to his game.

They were helped by a couple of decisions along the way. A '65 that went against Galway and a free for Cyril Donnellan that was never awarded. "I would say that those two decisions and maybe another went their way," said Anthony Cunningham afterwards, "but that's the way it goes."

Galway never pushed on despite being in a super position at the break. "We made four unforced errors and their hurling took over," Cunningham recapped. "Their half-forwards came very deep but we had chances as well, we were in hard luck for a few. Maybe we would have got decisions on another day. James (Owens) had a fine game but he might realise that the first 10 minutes of the second half weren't the best by his standards."

Still, they can only look within to find reasons for their collapse. In the first half Joe Canning and Jason Flynn had threatened to run riot but the ball stopped going into them. Kilkenny ground them down completely with Mick Fennelly cutting off the supply. Cathal Mannion's impact was nullified too and there was just no space.

"The intensity was something I never saw before," says Paul Murphy.

While the rest of the country feels Kilkenny won by cutting down space, Murphy has another theory to add.

"Our supporting play, from the lad who didn't have the ball coming onto a man in possession, was just massive. I thought the game opened up as it went on and we were able to find team-mates with cross-field ball too."

Eoin Larkin now has eight medals. A few years ago he wondered how he would make the team, and where. He remains as important to Cody as any other player. His longevity is something to behold. "I just try to work as hard as I can at the start of every year and see where it takes me," he says. "To reinvent yourself is the challenge."

"It's the relentless spirit of our team," Cody said, referencing Larkin's form as a reason for their latest win.

The manager's ruthless touch was evident on the sideline again. The best hurler in Ireland - Richie Hogan - had scored two points from play but he was hampered by the injury, and so was replaced. He looked furious as he was taken off. Good luck to him getting an apology for that.

Ger Aylward, too, had managed three points from play, and was also replaced. Therein lies the tale of another masterstroke by the gaffer. Against Waterford, Kilkenny only had one sub to introduce and waited until the 62nd minute before they brought on John Power. It was deemed by many pundits to be a weak bench. But in the time from then to the final Cody had Power, his brother Richie and Jackie Tyrrell to call upon. Richie Power had an impact, being involved in three scores during his time on the pitch.

"We weren't winning breaking ball in the first half," Joyce said. "Galway were smothering us. It was down to gritting the teeth and winning primary possession in the second half."

It's now 21 out of 50 titles for Kilkenny, their dominance under Brian Cody since the turn of the Millennium has set a record that will surely never be bettered. They have won 11 of 16 titles since 2000.

As the US TVcrew pulled out of St Kieran's College, training had long since ended but there were just as many youngsters pucking around as two hours earlier. They say that success usually comes to those who are too busy practising to be looking for it. That's the case in Kilkenny where the game is simply their way of life. They are what they repeatedly do. Their brilliance is not an act but a habit.

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