Tuesday 21 January 2020

Vincent Hogan: Too easy to forget Cats won just 11 of 18 championship games from 2012 to 2014

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Asked once what he would like the United States to do, Che Guevara replied: "Disappear!"

Is hurling beginning to feel the same way about Kilkenny? Ger Loughnane's depiction of them last week as "functional beyond belief" was clearly hard to reconcile with reality, but it did lean towards a broader conversation now rippling through the game. One focusing on how their dominance reflects damn poorly on those giving chase.

It's no more than human to tire of a colour scheme over time and Kilkenny's 11 All-Ireland wins in 16 seasons hints at an era of servility and drift for those supposedly keeping them honest.

No GAA county team has ever posted equivalent figures and it's highly doubtful that another one ever will.

For the third time under Brian Cody's stewardship, they will chase an All-Ireland three-in-a-row, but that isn't really the problem.

The real itch for hurling, as alluded to by Loughnane, is a sense that Kilkenny haven't needed to be extraordinary to reach that altitude.

Three-in-a-row teams are invariably stand-out, iconic coalitions. But the side that beat Galway last September didn't quite tick that box.

I have written before that Cody's post-All-Ireland final press conference was surely one of the shortest on record, extending to a mere four questions as media struggled to illuminate any new angles on a story of men in stripes climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand. This, clearly, was our failing, not theirs.

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But the 2015 All-Ireland champions weren't exactly cut from the same cloth as, say, the '06 winners or, certainly, the all-singing, all-dancing kingpins of '09.

If anything, they looked ordinary. Worse, two of their biggest players - Richie Hogan and Michael Fennelly - were strapped up like Allied survivors from Gallipoli whilst three of their defenders, Joey Holden, Shane Prendergast and Kieran Joyce, had quality control asterisks underneath their names.

Prendergast, a championship debutant at 29 (imagine!), was now being deployed to fill the boots of a certain Jackie Tyrrell.

But Kilkenny won undramatically against a Galway team whose subsequent winter convulsions don't appear to have resolved very much at all.

Elsewhere? Tipperary were bidding farewell to Eamon O'Shea with the memory of one summer past a nagging stone in their shoe and Derek McGrath was reminding us that Waterford's progress might just as easily stall in 2016 as gather momentum.

The rest? Nowhere to be seen.

So Kilkenny's win triggered a slightly jaundiced response because, if anything, it suggested their opponents to be a gaunt gallery of the incompetent and the supine.

If the Cats could win it from a virtual hospital bed, what would they do next time with an uncompromised hand?

They took a direct route to last year's title - four games, four wins - just as they did in 2011 when responding to Tipp having stalled their five-in-a-row charge the year before. And Kilkenny never really looked in danger of losing any of last year's games. They were, largely, in control.

Easy to forget then the state of flux they endured between those two perfect seasons. Easy to overlook that, of the 18 championship games Kilkenny played between 2012-'14, they won just11.

That's a mere 61 per cent strike rate for men who, supposedly, hold hurling in a clenched fist.

The key statistic, of course, is that out of those three volatile seasons, Kilkenny still mined two All-Irelands.

Despite winning just four of their six championship games in both 2012 and 2014, they were still crowned champions. Cody's ability to calibrate a team to peak in September is unmatched in GAA history and maybe blinds us to the difficulties Kilkenny often encounter in just getting there.

I suspect he resents that blindness.

Hubris isn't his thing, but he can be provoked and it was hard not to suspect the decision to rest Hogan and TJ Reid for last weekend's 24-point destruction of Offaly might have had something to do with Loughnane's insistence beforehand that this Kilkenny team was "totally dependent" upon the two.

Then again, Cody has rested other All-Stars through this league without feeling a need to explain himself and Offaly, he knew, were never going to stress-test his selection, regardless of personnel.

Next weekend will be different because next weekend will be real.

Playing Kilkenny isn't exactly atom-splitting but, if you don't have a plan, you needn't really bother showing up.

And one thing that can be said with some conviction about Thurles tomorrow week is that Davy Fitz will have a plan.

The key stats from Clare's quarter-final defeat of Tipperary in Ennis were surely the blanks drawn from play by both Seamus Callanan and John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer.

This against a Banner back-line shorn of, probably, three likely championship starters.

Love or loathe Fitzgerald, he - at the very least - knows how to make a game interesting.

And Cody will, no doubt, savour the challenge of an opponent instinctively programmed for insubordination against the game's traditional oligarchs.

He may, quietly of course, find fuel too in Dónal óg Cusack's presence on the line, given the Corkman's infamous depiction of mirthless robots in stripes, laying waste to the game.

Either way, Kilkenny (or Cody) won't be disappearing.

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