Sunday 19 November 2017

Patience a virtue if you're a Kilkenny substitute

Brian Cody looks on from the sideline during Kilkenny’s win over Tipperary. Photo: Dean Cullen / Sportsfile
Brian Cody looks on from the sideline during Kilkenny’s win over Tipperary. Photo: Dean Cullen / Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The minimalist approach that Brian Cody appears to take to substitutions was never more apparent than in the 2008 All-Ireland hurling final against Waterford.

It was a massacre, done and dusted well before half-time, yet Kilkenny deployed just two replacements. TJ Reid came off the bench to score four points, James McGarry came in late for PJ Ryan, a token gesture to the great service he had given as first-choice goalkeeper for the first eight seasons of Cody's tenure.

It was, possibly, the only sentimental substitute Cody has made in 17 championship seasons as manager.

Mick Fennelly, Richie Hogan and Michael Rice were all in the squad that day but none were deployed. The opportunity to 'run in' future team leaders into a benign environment was passed up. If they were getting in, they'd earn it.

Richie Reid, Jackie Tyrrell, Cillian Buckley, Brian Kennedy, Conor O'Shea, Mark Kelly, Conor Martin and Michael Malone all felt the cold winds of that policy last Sunday as the introduction of just Kieran Joyce and Jonjo Farrell brought the number of replacements used after two rounds of the 2016 League to three.


Already Cork have used 10, Tipperary and Galway have used nine each, while Limerick and Clare in Division 1B have deployed eight and seven respectively.

Only Waterford on four come close to Kilkenny territory and even then their manager Derek McGrath berated himself after Saturday night's win over Cork for not acting more decisively with the trio of substitutions he did make.

In Kilkenny, the incubation period lasts longer than anywhere else and that applies to match days too. With such narrow windows of opportunity the necessity to make every ball count becomes even greater. Obviously it has served them well.

In 79 championship games, Cody has made 249 substitutions, an average of 3.15 per game. It seems high in the context of recent league campaigns but still a stark contrast to Galway's seven SHC games last year when they used 33 replacements, an average of 4.7 per game.

Last year he used 10 in four championship games, three more than 2003 when he sent in a record low of seven.

For the Leinster final against Wexford he didn't resort to the bench at all, one of only two occasions (the 2004 All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford being the other) when he didn't send for reinforcements.

It was a feature of last year's league too. In the five regulation 1A games and the relegation play-off, just 11 substitutes were deployed. The contrast with every other county is quite staggering over the same six-match programme (league quarter-finals and relegation play-offs for 1A and 1B teams). Offaly were the closest on 22, McGrath used the maximum 30 with Waterford.

"If you're looking at players and trying out players you have to give them a full game if you can," responded Cody on Sunday when asked about the sparse number of replacements used in successive weekends.

It's not always that way. For the previous league campaign Kilkenny clearly adopted a different approach, casting the net as wide as they could after the difficulties of 2013 as 25 substitutions over the same six-game programme was made. Still only Limerick, Offaly and Dublin went lower.

The low yield for substitutes in black and amber has led to opinion being formed that they don't have the same strength in depth as others despite their dominance over them. But that hardly stacks in the face of what happened in Nowlan Park on Sunday.

A player who has never started a championship game scored both goals to break the game (Kevin Kelly), a starting debutant came away with man of the match (James Maher), while a rookie centre-back with only a handful of appearances behind him (Robert Lennon) shut out one of the game's most experienced centre-forwards ('Bonner' Maher).

The culture of competitiveness remains strong - the approach to substitutions ensures that passport stamps are always coveted.

Cats' minimalist approach to the bench

Number of substitutes each county used in six Division 1 games (five regulation and quarter-final/relegation play-off) in the 2015 league.

11 - Kilkenny

22 - Offaly

24 - Dublin

25 - Galway, Wexford, Laois, Clare

27 - Cork, Limerick

28 - Antrim, Tipperary

30 - Waterford

Number of substitutes each county has used in two regulation Division 1 hurling league games so far this season.

3 - Kilkenny

4 - Waterford

5 - Kerry

7 - Dublin, Clare

8 - Limerick, Wexford

9 - Tipperary, Galway, Offaly, Laois

10 - Cork

Irish Independent

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