Vincent Hogan: Cody needs to work magic again to put energy into a group that has looked oddly passive
The inside of Brian Cody’s head constitutes the most interesting place in hurling just now. What exactly lies behind those inscrutable eyes? Worry? Defiance?
Little chance the rest of us knowing when any anecdotes leaking out from those who’ve spent time under his direction reveal only the same, prevailing aura of mystery. Turns out that most Kilkenny players get no deeper into his psyche than those peering in over the Nowlan Park wall.
The greatest manager the game has known is inclined to withhold anything but the most superficial of access to his inner self.
Aidan ‘Taggy’ Fogarty spoke on Newstalk recently of how his retirement after a decade in the Kilkenny colours was concluded with a five-minute phone call. Describing Cody’s response to his decision as “very gracious”, Fogarty added “I didn’t want to go through maybe the motions of meeting him and trying to pick his brain because you can’t pick Brian Cody’s brain. The conversation you’re going to have is he’ll get everything from you and you’ll get nothing from him. And you’re still in limbo.”
That, in many ways, encapsulates the broader hurling world’s relationship with Kilkenny. It has often felt a one-way street. Their only uninhibited means of communication has been through the persuasiveness of their hurling. Beyond that, they remain stoic, disinterested, distant.
Cody has, essentially, built three separate Kilkenny teams during his time at the helm and, right now, the evidence suggests his immediate challenge is to build a fourth.
The clinical undressing of their back-line in last year’s All-Ireland final left the impression of a group beginning to look stretched and, if anything, that impression has gained traction since. You’d certainly have to go back some distance to the last time they weren’t outright favourites to win Leinster, not to mention running at only third in the market to take the Liam MacCarthy.
But their league campaign was underwhelming — save that recovery from seven points down against Tipp to draw in Thurles — and the success of Padraig Walsh’s re-invention as a full-back seemed to stall badly in the quarter-final loss to Wexford.
Hence we have a Kilkenny team coming to business now with serious question marks at numbers three and six, huge doubts over whether Michael Fennelly’s back issues will permit another big summer in the engine-room and, maybe most starkly, worries that the weight of attacking responsibility borne in recent seasons by TJ Reid and Richie Hogan has, maybe, begun to grate on their humour.
All of which means that Cody, who has been in this vicinity before (post 2005 All-Ireland final; post 2011 National League final; post 2012 Leinster final; post 2013 Championship) needs to work his magic again and put serious competitive energy into a group that has, of late, been looking (Tipp game apart) oddly passive.
Kilkenny’s best player in the league was Eoin Murphy, a sobering reflection of where the team was being most severely stress-tested.
Maybe the ultimate concession of eight goals in six games didn’t reflect any kind of calamitous meltdown in that regard, but a more clinical Wexford might easily have inflicted heavier damage in that quarter-final. And, if, as is the general expectation, Kilkenny now face that same, revitalised neighbour in Wexford Park on June 10, they will be going into seriously hostile and dangerous territory.
Galway’s electrifying league final performance suggests they should come through the other side of the draw where a relegated Dublin will surely struggle to match their size and physicality in Tullamore on May 28. The winners of that game will face either a Group qualifier or an Offaly team that remains some distance off this kind of calibre so, logically, Micheal Donoghue’s men should be playing in Croke Park on July 2.
How good are the Tribesmen?
Startlingly good if the evidence of April 23 in Limerick is to be taken at face value. Their demolition of the All-Ireland champions came on the back of one of the most complete team performances seen from any side in league or championship of recent times.
With Daithi Burke at three and Gearóid McInerney wearing six, they look to have finally found that defensive spine that has eluded so many recent Galway teams. And that achievement brings about a relatively simple enough compute. Because when Galway don’t look like conceding goals, they simply don’t look like losing.
Perhaps the most striking aspect to their league final performance was the physical authority it articulated over a Tipperary team that had, hitherto, looked to be carrying formidable momentum.
Joe Canning certainly appeared to be thriving in the flexibility allowed by a notional centre-forward role where his freedom to float created a massive headache for Ronan Maher. But it was more the impression that Galway now had size and self-sufficiency in every line that had their supporters giddy leaving the Gaelic Grounds.
The likes of Canning, Conor Whelan, Jason Flynn and Cathal Mannion looked almost rampant in an attack far from flattered by Galway’s final tally of 3-21.
Yet, for Donoghue, the challenge now is proving that that standard can become the Galway norm. Because their ability to bare teeth against Tipp is not something consistently replicated against other, top-rank opposition. Most notably Kilkenny.
The bookies will favour a Galway-Kilkenny final and, logically, that’s probably where the smart money should fall. But Davy Fitzgerald’s remarkable re-energising of Wexford means they surely cannot be discounted. Tactically, he won the battle with Kilkenny on April 2 and with the likes of Andrew Shore and Liam Óg McGovern added to a group in which men like Liam Ryan, Damien Reck, Matthew O’Hanlon, Lee Chin, David Redmond and Conor McDonald look to be thriving, they will represent dangerous opposition to whoever crosses their path.
Fitzgerald believes fervently that there’s a broad misunderstanding of the so-called ‘sweeper’ system he is known to favour, that the depiction of it as a negative tactic completely misses the point. Given his Clare team ran up 4-22 in last year’s National League semi-final against Kilkenny and Wexford summoned 2-18 against the same opposition in this year’s quarter-final (despite running up a double-digit column of wides) he may well have a point.
That said, the most compelling early summer momentum for this Leinster championship undoubtedly lies with Galway. The bookies have them joint favourites (with Kilkenny of course) to win the Bob O’Keeffe this time, yet in five finals contested since their inclusion in the province, 2012 remains their solitary victory. And three of those final defeats have come at Kilkenny’s hands.
Would you really write off the big, implacable James Stephens man, forever staring into a space the rest of us can’t see? Me neither.