Sport Hurling

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Cats' respect for the league pays dividends

Kilkenny pace-setting under Cody has given league greater intensity, says Dermot Crowe

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody

To the sponsors of the National Hurling League and those GAA administrators who have long held it to be the "second most important national competition" the enduring presence of Kilkenny is a ringing endorsement – not so much a competitor as an unofficial sponsor or a most valued patron.

Leaving aside the fact that in sport, second does not really count, and that championship will always keep the league in its place, the earnest application to the league during Brian Cody's reign has undoubtedly benefited its morale and prestige.

Not least is the incontestable fact that such dedication to winning the league has done Kilkenny no harm at all and might on all empirical evidence be seen to have done them the world of good. Cody treats all matches, including the Walsh Cup early rounder in Freshford, with a courtesy and respect, regarding every outing as an education, a chance for players to make their claims and show what they're made of. The league is a democratic competition, more keenly contested now down through the tiers than ever, and teams which see Kilkenny win five championship-league doubles in Cody's time, and suffer no obvious ill-affects from extended league runs, are bound to follow suit. Or attempt to.

The Kilkenny men won't be jumping around Thurles this evening like mad goats if they win their third league title in a row but they will appreciate in a restrained way the achievement as proof that they are doing things right. They are winning matches. In Cody's playing days Kilkenny won their first back-to-back league titles in 1983. Their recent record and relationship with the league has been transformed into something with no precedence, history being rewritten for the league under Cody's reign as it has for the championship. Seven wins in 10 years is not unprecedented (Tipperary had similar strike rates back in the 1950s and '60s) but it is an unprecedented show of fidelity for Kilkenny.

Traditional counties tend to follow regular and familiar patterns; they are creatures of habit. But when they won the 1962 league final against Cork it was Kilkenny's first since 1933 and only second ever. It was not a competition that unduly concerned them for a long time. By then Tipperary, who still lead the league honours charts, were on 10 wins. Cork and Limerick were on six each. Kilkenny have since moved into second place but that has largely been down to Cody's spring standards. It might have cost the competition in terms of novelty, yet the pace-setting of Kilkenny has raised the standards generally and the intensity of the league is greater than it has ever been.

And there still has been room for two romantic interludes, Waterford in 2007 and Dublin four years later, both at Kilkenny's expense. It would not surprise anyone to hear those victors admit that their wins were all the more valued because Kilkenny were the team they defeated in the final. When Dublin were starting to go places, modestly, in senior hurling one of the early prized results came in the spring of 2007 under Tommy Naughton, a fighting draw at home to Kilkenny in Parnell Park. Kilkenny might have been given a free to win it at the end but the referee demurred. The resulting indignation of some Kilkenny followers showed that an insatiable appetite for winning matches existed in the stands as well as on the field.

Brian Cody's first league match was in February 1999 in Cork, against the then league holders and they lost, later losing the league semi-final to Galway by a goal. It is astonishing to think that Henry Shefflin was top scorer that day and remains an integral part of their plans to win another league title today. Three of those league final wins have been over today's opponents Tipperary. When Kilkenny played that first league game under Cody, Cork had won a 14th league title the previous year. Kilkenny at that time were on nine. Kilkenny have won seven since; Cork none.

But the third league final win of Kilkenny's grand total of 16 was surely the most appreciated. In 1966 they defeated Tipp at Croke Park, the meagre crowd of 16,171 reflecting Tipperary's dominance in meetings at the time. In 1964 that powerful Tipp team of the 60s hammered Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final and they defeated them in the following year's league final on the way to the league-championship double. But that wasn't even the half of it.

Kilkenny's fixation with Tipperary went back to their last All-Ireland final win over the Premier in 1922. From there they suffered a litany of national final defeats, feeding accusations of Tipperary being their superiors when the heat was on. They demolished Kilkenny in the 1937 All-Ireland final in Killarney and won the All-Ireland finals of 1945, '50 and '64, as well as the semi-final of '58. There were also Tipp league final wins over Kilkenny in 1950, '54, '57 and '65. The '64 All-Ireland final defeat of Kilkenny was a landslide, 5-13 to 2-8.

Which is why the 1966 league final came as such a relief. They finally toppled Tipperary, winning 0-9 to 0-7. While the legendary county secretary Paddy Grace would dismiss talk of bogeys – saying he "didn't believe in fairies" – by the time of the '66 league final then they were desperate to halt the losing sequence. Leading 0-8 to 0-3 at half-time after playing with a gale it looked like they hadn't enough in the bank. But despite scoring one point in the second half Kilkenny held on with a resolute show of defending.

This gave them the confidence to drive on and win the 1967 All-Ireland final against Tipperary and right a thousand perceived wrongs. Any national final between Kilkenny and Tipperary is a serious affair, and today is too, but 1966 was that bit more serious than all the rest.

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