Monday 23 April 2018

'We've seen how far we are off the pace' - Kilkenny's Padraig Walsh on Clare mauling

Walsh admits Cats must learn lessons from Clare mauling before summer

Padraig Walsh: “What we saw against Clare is that if you’re not on top of your game, you’ll just be blown away.” Photo: Sportsfile
Padraig Walsh: “What we saw against Clare is that if you’re not on top of your game, you’ll just be blown away.” Photo: Sportsfile
Top Kilkenny hurler Padraig Walsh has successfully undertaken laser eye surgery treatment available from Optilase, Ireland’s leading laser eye surgery clinic. Picture: Kinlan Photography
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

So was that a doom-laden storm blowing up in Kilkenny's faces or just another mildly quarrelsome breeze? They've been here before, of course, their history making a mockery of those inclined towards grandiose conclusions before there's any real heat in the sky.

But Clare's 4-22 in Thurles? That didn't so much feel like some kind of collective mishap as a pretty ruthless ransacking.

It isn't Brian Cody's way to become too energised about good days or bad and he was typically sanguine in the old dressing-room corridor beneath the Kinnane Stand afterwards, shrugging those giant shoulders at our questions as if to say 'Gentlemen, ye saw it as clearly as me!'

Padraig Walsh admits that there was no great appetite for forensics in the Kilkenny dressing-room afterwards. Cody has a set line for these moments. He directs his players to go back to their clubs and give them the respect to which they are entitled. This evening, he will get them back into Nowlan Park and only then will they get to feel whatever edge April 17 has deposited on his humour.

In the immediate aftermath, they just took their sore bodies up to the Anner Hotel for food before heading back to the Marble City, those stripey shirts effectively decommissioned until June 11. Eight weeks to weed the bad stuff from their minds.

Walsh always sits with Lester Ryan on the Kilkenny bus - half-way down, next to the toilet - and maybe the last thing they ever talk about is hurling. Lester is a farmer and his instinct is to give Padraig a running commentary on the varying condition of land and livestock passed en route to and from big hurling grounds.

Aron Cunningham skips past Shane Prendergast during Clare’s victory over Kilkenny. Photo: Sportsfile
Aron Cunningham skips past Shane Prendergast during Clare’s victory over Kilkenny. Photo: Sportsfile

Sanity, routinely, is to be found in the plainest places.

So Kilkenny will deal with the Clare mauling in the only way they know. By using the hurt as some kind of fossil fuel. But not just yet. For now, Cody's words about local responsibilities demand honouring.

Last night, Walsh played for Tullaroan in an intermediate championship clash with Gowran. Relegated in 2014, the club is desperate to reclaim senior status. In their efforts to do so, they also have call on his three brothers, Tommy, Martin and Shane. For the Walsh household then, Kilkenny can wait.

Padraig will admit, though that Clare have set the Cats thinking.

"They're a serious team," he says flatly. "The big thing for us I suppose is that we've seen how far we're off the pace. They never let us hurl.

"The really disappointing thing was that they out-worked us all over the field. They were hungrier and on to all the breaks. We just weren't getting there, we weren't getting bodies in over the ball. Clare were coming out of the rucks with every ball and that's something we'll really have to think about.

Kilkenny's Eoin Murphy tries to evade Clare's Conor McGrath. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Kilkenny's Eoin Murphy tries to evade Clare's Conor McGrath. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

"But look, this time last year, we were coming out of a relegation battle and still won the All-Ireland."

Which of course, for the rest of hurling, is the rather significant small print best processed before drawing any grand conclusions now. Walsh, in many ways, is emblematic of Kilkenny's remarkable ability to calibrate their seasons. He is just 24 but already has two senior All-Ireland medals, two Leinster and one National League title to his name.

In terms of bloodlines, he could not really fail.

His maternal grandfather was Paddy Grace, an All-Ireland winner with Kilkenny as well as county secretary for just short of four decades. Grace died before Padraig was born, but his stature within the GAA community generally has always been well recognised.

Cian Dillon, Clare, in action against Jonjo Farrell, Kilkenny
Cian Dillon, Clare, in action against Jonjo Farrell, Kilkenny

Padraig's father, Michael, was on the last Tullaroan team to win the county title (in '94). Then there's his sister, Grace, who plays camogie for Kilkenny. And did we mention Tommy?

The family had great, invigorating days watching the eldest Walsh boy grow into one of the greatest wing-backs ever seen. Perhaps the highlight years were 2009 and '11 when Tommy looked unbreakable. But he had drifted to the periphery of Cody's thinking by '14 before retirement and now it's Tommy shouting encouragement to Padraig from the stands.

And the story of one Walsh almost instantly inheriting the No 5 shirt put down by his own brother has an appealing symmetry. That said, many believe that Padraig's place with Kilkenny might, in time, prove to be midfield. He was switched there to fire-fight in that League semi-final, yet still accepts the notion of collective responsibility for what was a record concession of the Cody era.

Clare's tactic of isolating John Conlon on the edge of the Kilkenny square stress-tested Joey Holden in a way he simply did not experience last season. And the outcome was ruinous.

"He (Conlon) can handle ball whatever way it comes in to him," acknowledges Walsh. "But maybe we weren't getting back quick enough to help out. It's not an unusual tactic. But Clare can turn defence into attack so quickly. You can talk about systems all you like, but Clare have the basics too.

"They're going to be very hard to stop."

He is as well versed as any man on the Banner class. When he won an All-Ireland minor medal in 2010, their final opponents were a Clare team that included Tony Kelly, Podge Collins and Colm Galvin. Two years later, he was on a Kilkenny U-21 All-Ireland final side beaten by Clare, with Galvin, Conor McGrath and Séadna Morey to the fore.

During his time studying English and History at University of Limerick, Walsh hurled Fitzgibbon alongside Collins and Conor Ryan. Hence the narrative of listing Kilkenny's missing soldiers just does not interest him.

"The team we put out wasn't exactly inexperienced was it?" he stresses.

"And think of how many lads Clare were missing too. You just can't say we were under-strength from that perspective.

"What we saw against Clare is that if you're not on top of your game, you'll just be blown away."

A part-time teacher in Callan CBS, Walsh says it is east to trust in the Kilkenny collective when you look at the calibre of those who set the dressing-room standards. His first full year as a senior county man happened to coincide with the farewells of men like Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney, Brian Hogan and Aidan Fogarty, not to mention his own brother.

He remembers both Shefflin and Hogan taking it upon themselves to speak in the dressing-room at half-time in the 2014 All-Ireland final replay against Tipperary.

"They must have been disappointed not to be playing, but they just shoved that away," recalls Walsh. "That's a hard thing to do if you're not playing, to stand up and encourage the lad who's taken your place.

"Brian Cody is obviously a massive factor behind that. It's probably why Kilkenny have done so well. Everyone's putting the team first."

Can they do it again?

"Look, it's a long year," he smiles. "It's June 11 before we're out again and we just really have to make the most of that time."

Irish Independent

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