Sunday 21 January 2018

Cody now needs his old Cats to learn some new tricks

Brian Cody has enjoyed unprecedented success with Kilkenny
Brian Cody has enjoyed unprecedented success with Kilkenny

Rachel Wyse

The summer of 2013 indicated that everything had changed. The age of Kilkenny and Tipperary had passed. New names with fresh faces bringing different styles to the game of hurling were lauded.

We were enjoying a renaissance, the game had been saved. And yet... the 2014 NHL final suggested that those who had declared the traditional powers were in decline may have spoken too soon.

The true relevance of the brilliant clash between Tipperary and Kilkenny will only be fully revealed as the first Sunday in September draws nearer. Irrespective of how the championship unfolds, Kilkenny's achievements in winning three consecutive National Leagues should be commended.

It may well be Liam MacCarthy's poor relation, but the league still asks questions of a team, albeit in a different dynamic. Kilkenny's players and management have always had the answers.

When history reflects on the recent era of Cats dominance, most will focus on their All-Ireland final days, but their 10 league final appearances in 13 years makes for a significant footnote.

JUGGERNAUT

No matter what the competition, as far as Brian Cody is concerned, every game is there to be won and rarely have we seen the Kilkenny juggernaut stray off course.

Cody is a man with an unrelenting mindset, a man of great pride, and while his time in the Kilkenny hot-seat aligned with the emergence of some of the game's most outrageously talented players, Cody has always got the very best from that crop.

By his own admission, he has made mistakes; mistakes for which he paid a high price last year when injuries served to undermine the Cats' championship form. Too many Kilkenny players were struggling and Cody's panel wasn't sufficiently equipped to deal with the demands of the summer.

Since the Walsh Cup in early January, it has been clear that Cody is aware of the importance of bringing in a new batch of hungry Cats.

Last Sunday, Kilkenny went to war with Brian Hogan, Tommy Walsh, Eoin Larkin and Aidan Fogarty all keeping Cody company on the sideline. With the championship coming into view, it could well be argued the strategy adopted by Kilkenny's management has yielded considerable dividends.

New talents have emerged, while the seasoned campaigners are itching to reclaim the jerseys in which they have given remarkable service.

At the height of their success, stories of Kilkenny's training sessions travelled far and wide. Incredible competition for places was supposedly the secret behind black-and-amber domination.

I suspect the details were exaggerated. With the occasional exception, the team has picked itself. And while new players were blooded in this year's league campaign, I think come June when another championship rolls around that Kilkenny will revert to their tried and tested stars.

The evidence to date suggests nothing better is available to Cody. Last Sunday in their greatest test to date, Padraig Walsh was the only newcomer to last the duration against Tipperary.

Failure to survive in an environment with a margin of error considerably greater than the one awaiting in summer months does not inspire confidence.

There may be talk of a revolution, but don't believe the hype. Kilkenny's All-Ireland-winning prospects depend on the capabilities of the older campaigners to go to the well one more time. Last summer suggested many had reached the end of the road. Legs seemed heavy, appetites lost.

But at the time, injuries to key men distorted everything. Against a youthful, pacy Cork outfit they looked a tired team. In the coming weeks we will learn if that picture was accurate.

Clare's All-Ireland success was based on energy and youthful exuberance. Teams are now intent on avoiding a dogfight with Cody's men, preferring to engage the enemy in a test of speed and mobility.

Cody's desire to experiment with Lester Ryan at centre-back while simultaneously introducing Brian Kennedy, Padraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley into Kilkenny's defence during the league campaign looked like an attempt to ensure these tests could be passed. Even though they are league champions, Cody's choices have been no more than a qualified success.

Should Kilkenny continue to adopt the style of hit-and-hope delivery from their backs to their forwards as we witnessed in Thurles last Sunday, they will not be adding to their considerable All-Ireland tally this September.

Those methods were extremely successful in years past when some of greatest players ever to play the game were in their prime and Kilkenny also possessed an edge in physical terms.

But the opposition has bridged the conditioning gap, and the 'fight for your own ball' ethos won't yield the same dividends it once did. I wonder is another league trophy papering over some cracks.

For Tipperary, the league signified real progression. Initially they stuttered and were on the brink of a relegation play-off before they found form at just the right time.

Eamon O'Shea has taken time to adjust to being No 1 but you sense his team are now finally playing to his preferred style. In Padraig and Brendan Maher they have a strong spine to their defence.

Young players like Cathal Barrett, James Barry and Niall O'Meara have stepped up. Had they shown a little more composure and perhaps if Lady Luck had smiled a little less on their opponents, then their lot could have been very different last Sunday.

Tipperary are definitely headed in the right direction. A Munster title would be very welcome for O'Shea, a triumph from which the younger players may well derive considerable confidence and belief to push on in their quest for All-Ireland glory. For now, such a prize is a long way away.

Twelve months ago league form proved worthless come championship time. The inevitable Kilkenny-Tipperary clash materialised, but few anticipated it would come in the qualifiers in July.

For so long Liam MacCarthy was Kilkenny's to lose. However, nothing lasts forever and this perception is long gone. Those in black and amber have been shown to be human after all.

Now summer is here, the evenings are longer and with the National League in the bag, Cody and his mere mortals set out on a familiar path.

For some of their older players, this year may well represent one final roll of the dice. Sport rarely accommodates sentiment, but I wonder does September have a fairytale ending in store?

Irish Independent

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