Thursday 21 November 2019

Major Kilkenny rebuild well ahead of schedule

Martin Keoghan, scorer of five points from play against Waterford, is one of several young Kilkenny players who have an impact this year Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Keoghan, scorer of five points from play against Waterford, is one of several young Kilkenny players who have an impact this year Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Cast your mind back to recent All-Ireland minor hurling champions and you'll instantly think of Waterford's 2013 success that has subsequently helped to fuel a resurgence under Derek McGrath.

Austin Gleeson, Shane and Stephen Bennett, Tom Devine, Patrick Curran and Conor Gleeson have gone on to make their mark in the following four years. The rest in this decade have been carved up between Galway, Tipperary and Kilkenny's sole victory in 2014.

It almost felt like a footnote at the time, routine business blurring into such a run of dominance by the county's senior team over the previous decade and a half.

"It doesn't even register that Kilkenny won the minor the year after (Waterford in 2013) against Limerick and get to the U-21 final last year, albeit beaten by a very good Limerick team," noted McGrath earlier this week.

But the significance of that team is being felt now as Brian Cody oversees a new, and arguably his most challenging, reconstruction project.

Of the 30 players that Kilkenny have used in their four league games to date, nine have their roots back to that 2014 team and that doesn't include Jason Cleere and John Walsh who have yet to feature, while 10 of the 20 players manager Eddie Brennan deployed in last year's U-21 final defeat to Limerick have seen action across that same period.

The relative despair of a first-round defeat to Cork and the yawning gap that Clare were able to open up on them in the second game has been tempered by their response to Clare, the source of their victory in Waterford and the manner of their rescue mission against Tipperary the last day.

Regardless of the weighting that anyone puts on second-level colleges hurling, five Croke Cup victories for St Kieran's in this decade can't be ignored either.

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The blue-bloods that have gone before are virtually irreplaceable and a collective physical deficit will still make this year a challenging one. But the 'sorting-out' process is well and truly under way in Kilkenny and producing more positive results than some might have expected.

The trawl has already given league exposure to more players at this stage of the season by comparison to 25 players used in all divisional games in 2016 and 26 used at the same stage last season.

This, with establishment figures like Richie Hogan and Conor Fogarty managing and recovering from injury, and Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly overseas on duty with the Defence Forces.

The lineage of some of those being pushed to the forefront is not lost on keen observers either.

Conor Browne, who made a few eye-catching plays the last day against Tipperary, is a son of camogie legend Angela Downey-Browne and a grandson of 1947 All-Ireland winner Shem Downey.

James Maher's mother is Jillian Dillon-Maher while his grandfather Pa Dillon won three All-Ireland medals in the 1960s.

Martin Keoghan, scorer of five points from play against Waterford, is a son of 1992-93 All-Ireland winner Liam Keoghan.

Pat Lyng is a son of former Dublin hurler Jim and a first cousin of former Kilkenny midfielder and current selector Derek.

"We weren't expecting anything this year but they seem to be making strides," said Eddie Keher, the former star who recently joined Brian Cody as a freeman of Kilkenny city.


"They'll be competitive this year, but there are better teams out there. They won't be too bad, I won't expect them to go all the way but I think most Kilkenny people are pleased with the development of the team."

Keher believes there is a strong realisation that patience will be required to steer the county back on a correct path and that process is well under way.

"They said there was criticism of Brian Cody but I never saw that. I think people were very patient and realising that we had a great time over the last 15 or 20 years but we are going to have to go back and rebuild. I don't think anyone expected the rebuilding process to get to this stage so quickly."

Keher believes full-back remains the team's biggest conundrum with the "sacrifice" of having to keep Padraig Walsh there being maintained.

"We have problems in a few places to sort yet. Settling on a full-back line now seems to be the biggest problem. Conor Delaney played wing-back and I think he has potential. We thought he might get a run at full-back because he plays for his club but neither him nor Padraig Walsh were playing against Tipperary because of the college commitments."

A forward line that will have Fennelly, Hogan, TJ Reid and Walter Walsh, with Cillian Buckley at centre-back, Padraig Walsh probably at full-back and Eoin Murphy, the game's outstanding goalkeeper, is still fundamentally strong.

Unusually, Kilkenny prepare for the visit of Wexford to Nowlan Park on Sunday having lost their last three games (2017 league and Leinster championship and 2018 Walsh Cup final) to them. "That's unique," said Keher. "I'd say Kilkenny are mad to stop that."

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