Wednesday 25 April 2018

Transition in the blink of an eye from Kilkenny

Brian Cody’s 20th national title may well represent his best achievement

Kilkenny’s Enda Morrissey gets his shot away despite the attempted block of Jason Forde of Tipperary during the Allianz NHL final. Photo: Sportsfile
Kilkenny’s Enda Morrissey gets his shot away despite the attempted block of Jason Forde of Tipperary during the Allianz NHL final. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

They gathered beneath the presentation platform on Nowlan Park's Walsh Stand, numbers swelling quickly to a point where it was comfortably in the small thousands.

So often in the past, the handing over of a trophy after a final has been no more than a regulatory detail.

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo: Sportsfile
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo: Sportsfile

Car pools of Kilkenny supporters have poured out through the arteries leading away from Croke Park just as their captain of the day is waving the Bob O'Keeffe Cup from the Hogan Stand in early July.

Similarly, an early summer hoisting of the Dr Croke Cup to conclude a successful league hasn't been something to stall the rush to get back over the county boundaries from Thurles.

But it's only when something feels like it's gone that it's missed. Thus, the reaction after this, Kilkenny's 18th league title, Brian Cody's ninth as manager.

"You don't often see that," remarked one veteran observer of every one of the 20 national titles that Cody has now amassed in 20 years, pointing to the scene below.

This wasn't expected, not just two games in to the campaign when they were pointless after successive three-point defeats to Cork and Clare, but generally it felt like the game's serial winners of the last two decades would have to bide their time on this one.

The words of Cody in the CityWest Hotel on the Monday after the 2016 All-Ireland final defeat to Tipperary ring loudly now however.

"There are players on our panel who haven't been seen yet who will be top players, and quickly. You can rest assured of that," he said with some conviction that morning.

You couldn't describe it outright as a bold statement but it was one of deep intent, nonetheless, at the time.

Some 19 months on, they're very much back in the national picture, names like Paddy Deegan, Conor Delaney, Richie Leahy, Martin Keoghan and John Donnelly nudging their way into the conversation.

As good then as any other success Cody has presided over? You'd have to construct a decent case against it, the 2006 and 2015 All-Ireland titles providing the most compelling arguments.

Kilkenny's 'gone' clearly doesn't equate to anyone else's 'gone'. They're judged by their own exalted standards each day they go out.

And the prevailing winds of opinion have been blowing hard against them since that first Sunday in September two years ago.

Cody chose to keep his powder dry on that front yesterday evening, acknowledging the success but also the distance they still have to travel. This, after all, was a league where some reticence was clearly on show and managers prioritised deepening their pockets of reserves with a different championship format ahead. It was only in recent weeks that the business of outright victory became relevant.

"With all due respect to everyone, it doesn't ever concern me what anyone's opinion is about Kilkenny," he said afterwards.

"I think we look after the thing ourselves in our own place, and everyone has an opinion. The great thing about everyone's opinion is that it can change today, whereas our opinion is tested the whole time and you have to deliver on it. So it doesn't really matter from anyone's point of view. Pundits predict and everything else. And if they're wrong, it doesn't matter because they can go again."

Cody's confidence in what players he was entrusting the future to hasn't wavered, not that his public utterances would betray anything else anyway.

"What's happened today has been very, very good but the championship starts and everything starts differently then. I had confidence in the players that we had, the younger players coming through. Obviously, it is a time for ourselves, we are blooding a lot of newer players, younger players. They are decent players but we have a long way to go, obviously."

Deegan was immense at corner-back, a trouble spot in recent seasons, catching forcefully, mopping up and popping delicate deliveries out to the next line in keeping with Kilkenny's slight tactical shift.

Leahy made some telling runs through the middle, Keoghan sniped at the bigger men around him and Donnelly showed a presence beneath a dropping ball. But ultimately it was two members of the establishment who did the heaviest lifting.

Walter Walsh was largely anonymous in the opening half but sparked to life after the break to score 1-2 and win frees for two more.

Such was his impact that Pádraic Maher spent the last 10 minutes firefighting from full-back after James Barry's withdrawal, territory he hasn't had to return to for quite some time. But even Walsh's contribution was supplanted by the majesty of TJ Reid once more.

The game's most economic hurler is going to force programme publishers DBA to alter their team layout to create space that allows all his scores to be jotted around his name, such is the rate he's been racking them up at.

Another 15-point haul here brought his league tally to 1-81. From the six games he started he has amassed double figures each time - 1-11, 0-13, 0-12, 0-12, 0-15, 0-15.

He took 12 frees, missing just one from around the 100-metre mark at the very end after he himself had chased back to thwart Michael Cahill and win the free.

But three points from play were very much his signature on the game at a time when Kilkenny needed his direction against the wind in the opening half, his fielding over Ronan Maher and Barry for two of them and his power to burst past Maher and Alan Flynn every bit as telling as his glorious touch.

"He's been really consistent for us," said Cody. "And, I mean, that's the level he's at. TJ is on the team a long time now, an outstanding hurler, and he has to step up. He has to be the player he's capable of being, not just a player who is tipping away at maybe scoring five or six points.

Capable

"He's capable of playing at that level. That's his ability, and his application has been terrific. His fitness levels are huge as well, so he's reaping the benefits of the work he's putting into it."

The prospect of Richie Hogan slipping in beside him for the summer ride is something that Cody now offers a prayer for too as he recovers from a back problem.

"God, I hope so. He has everybody working diligently to get it sorted, absolutely, and we just hope that he will be."

For Cody's Hogan and even Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly, Michael Ryan can see him and raise him Seamus Callanan, Patrick 'Bonner' Maher and Noel McGrath, all absent here. And Ryan confessed afterwards that the Premier need their impact.

"We need to see more of our missing players back on the pitch. I think we were stretched today in terms of resources and it hurt. We became a little bit predictable and we didn't have that variety that we were looking for."

It was an eighth consecutive defeat in Nowlan Park since the 2008 league semi-final for Tipp and a second successive league final loss.

"It's a difficult place to come, the upside of coming down here - even though it's sore - is that you won't get a better atmosphere, you won't get a bigger education in hurling. You are really down here in the lion's den. Every ball is like gold out there for whoever gets their hands on it," Ryan added.

More than he would have liked it was hands reaching from a black and amber shirt, the sense that Tipp lost a battle as much as a match so palpable.

They had their moments, John McGrath's swerve and pass for Jason Forde's opening goal a real treat in the 24th minute but, on the sideline, Ryan was never comfortable.

"It's nothing like last year, last year was a 'non-turn-up.' I just felt we were within ourselves and we weren't showing enough urgency to face what I knew was going to come which was a Kilkenny attack. They had all the intensity, we didn't."

And that was it - transition in the blink of an eye.

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