Sunday 22 April 2018

Vincent Hogan: Dubs could be hurling dark horses - if they add clinical edge

Loss of marquee names means that Kilkenny come to the table quietly as defending champions

Mark Schutte of Dublin in action against Kilkenny's Jackie Tyrrell in last year's Leinster's final.
Mark Schutte of Dublin in action against Kilkenny's Jackie Tyrrell in last year's Leinster's final.
Dublin goalkeeper Alan Nolan and Liam Rushe combine to stop a shot from Kilkenny's John Power in last year's Leinster hurling final.
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody.
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In January, Brian Cody kicked up a few little dust clouds of outrage with his choice of language whilst offering a glimpse of the psyche that has defined an incomparable reign as Kilkenny boss.

In a UCD address, the 10-time All-Ireland-winning manager suggested that players "should always be prepared to kill to win a game."

Cue a flurry of civil liberty types spouting dismay that someone in such a position of responsibility might wilfully foster such naked blackguardism in the pursuit of victory.

Suffice to say that those who took Cody's words literally would probably interpret countless parental admonishments of their own children in a playground as genuine threats of homicide. What the Kilkenny manager was, presumably, articulating was the singular mindset he believes has been essential to their domination of the game since his ascension to the role of manager in late '98.

It might, thus, be instructive to recycle some of Cody's other quotes from that address, words communicating maybe slightly better the essence of what he believes in.

"What I kind of love, the whole spirit of the thing, when you know you're going out on that field and there's nobody, nobody going to out-fight you," he said. "There's no other team around that can say, 'I'm going to work harder than this crowd', because you've developed that kind of spirit that can't be broken. It's a fabulous thing. The spirit of the thing, if it's not there on the field, if you're not driving, if you're not hunting, if you're not working, then - to me - it's my fault because it's my responsibility to ensure the team has that attitude going out.

"So, if the team goes out without that attitude, it's not a players' thing. It's my problem and I've failed then and that bothers me. That would make me savage."

Through his 17 seasons at the helm, there have been many points of intersection between success and renewal when Cody's coping mechanisms have been key to sustaining Kilkenny as the game's most compelling force. Maybe most memorably, his '06 creation of a ruthless, implacable team from the ashes of bad defeats in '04 and '05 at a time when many big-name critics were predicting a period of great struggle ahead of the Cats.

We know now that, not only did they spike Cork's three-in-a-row bid that year, they began to gather momentous steam thereafter to win a scarcely credible seven of the next nine senior All-Irelands. Rumours of their demise had not so much been exaggerated as rooted in roaring idiocy. So what is the take on Kilkenny now?


The reigning All-Ireland champions come into this Championship without fanfare or even, come to think of it, a palpable sense of being on a pedestal to be shot at.

They won everything there was to win in 2014, but a tranche of big-name retirements since, plus an unfamiliar National League wrestle with the possibility of relegation, has taken them away from a media spotlight, dominated in recent weeks by the young guns of Waterford.

Deprived iconic men like King Henry, Tommy Walsh, JJ Delaney, Brian Hogan and Aidan Fogarty, what is the Kilkenny dynamic then?

Unusually, we have no true form-guide to follow this time. They did put out a strong (on paper) team for that Jamie Wall fundraiser at Páirc Uí Rinn last month, but the concession of 4-18 to a Cork side subsequently emulsified in the League final makes you wonder just how highly Cody had things ratcheted.

Historically, he tends to put more store on in-house training matches than challenge games, given the customary strength of the Kilkenny panel.

On that basis, the assumption will be that a new team has been hot-housed behind the closed doors of Nowlan Park in recent weeks.

But then how new do Kilkenny really have to be? Of those gone to retirement, only Delaney got regular game-time in last year's Championship and it remains to be seen whether Paul Murphy or Joey Holden will be the ones to inherit that No 3 shirt.

JJ's departure is probably a headache Cody could have done without, but Kilkenny will still be favourites to account for Wexford or the round-robin runners-up at Nowlan Park on June 21, albeit a game against Liam Dunne's emerging team might not be quite as uncomplicated as some would have you believe.

Wexford made huge strides under the Oulart man last season and they have beaten Kilkenny en route to the last two Leinster U-21 titles. After an age of apparent stasis, they are building again and there is also a sense that they might just hurl with more freedom at Nowlan Park rather than in front of an expectant home crowd.

Galway and Dublin meet on the other side with the winners likely to meet Offaly in a Leinster semi-final.

Ger Cunningham will probably have been feeling pretty fulfilled by the progress Dublin were making in his debut season as manager right up to the last 20 minutes of their League semi-final against Cork. But that small pocket of time corrupted much of their progress.

We have seen conclusive evidence since (from Waterford) of how to close out a game against Cork, but that day in Nowlan Park, the Dubs simply did not have sufficient composure.

That had to be disappointing given the experience at Cunningham's disposal and, no doubt, much of the Dubs' work since will have been with a view to becoming more clinical.

That said, they were without Danny Sutcliffe that day and they did have notable successes in the League, like Chris Crummey at centre-back, the pacey Niall McMorrow in midfield and an increasingly explosive Mark Schutte at inside forward. But Liam Rushe never looked entirely happy at full-forward and it will be a surprise if he starts there against Galway.

Anthony Cunningham's fourth season in charge of the Tribesmen got off to an inauspicious start with that lifeless quarter-final fall to Waterford in the League. The county board has put their faith in him with another three-year term, but Cunningham will know that supporters' patience is wearing thin.

Still, they could have beaten Kilkenny in last year's Leinster Championship and probably should have beaten Tipp in an All-Ireland qualifier, so it's not as if Galway are a million miles from the top table.

Men like Jason Flynn and Jonathan Glynn can give the attack real bite, but there is still that sense of Galway leaning too heavily on Joe Canning to carry them to the Promised Land. They will be hoping Daithi Burke recovers in time from a broken arm to face the Dubs, but it is simply impossible to make a prediction of any kind for Galway, given they palpably do not know what to expect themselves.

Either way, the winners of this game should beat Brian Whelahan's men in the Leinster semi-final, although Offaly's defeat of Limerick in the League might serve as a warning that they are not exactly a team to be trifled with.

We take Kilkenny and Dublin to make it to the July 5 Leinster final with Cunningham's Dubs to win only their second crown since '61.

Irish Independent

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