Cody plan firmly rooted in present
Worries over Kilkenny production line will not bother Cats' boss as he prepares for assault on All-Ireland
At the Clare U-21 hurlers' victory banquet in December 2012, the players were presented with their Munster and All-Ireland medals by Ger Loughnane. Addressing the attendance at the West County Hotel, Loughnane's speech covered a wide range of topics, but a significant part of his address focused on character and its importance in building success.
"Character is what makes great teams," he said. "Character is what makes Kilkenny hurling, Manchester United and the All Blacks. One of my favourite players of the present time is Brian Hogan. He is not fast, not skilful. But when Kilkenny's need is at its greatest, Hogan will stand up at centre-back and defy anyone to beat him. That's character."
Hogan is almost the ultimate embodiment of the theory that adversity doesn't make character, it reveals it. He didn't play minor for Kilkenny. He made an undistinguished senior championship debut the day Kilkenny were beaten by Wexford in 2004. Hogan lost his place afterwards and didn't wear the No 6 jersey again until the 2007 Leinster semi-final. Regaining the jersey alone was an achievement; becoming such an effective player for Kilkenny underlined the magnitude of the achievement.
Despite Kilkenny's wealth of talent, their ability to mine uncut stones and polish them into rare gems has been a hallmark of their success. Derek Lyng, Martin Comerford and Eddie Brennan also never played minor for Kilkenny, but they accumulated 20 All-Ireland medals.
If the quality is there, Kilkenny will unearth it; James McGarry was 28 and third-choice 'keeper at the outset of the 1999 season before becoming an illuminating presence during a golden era for goalkeepers. Nobody had heard of Walter Walsh before the 2012 All-Ireland final replay, but he went on to win man-of-the-match on his debut.
Yet at the outset of last season, Walsh's arrival didn't suspend the belief that Kilkenny's bench no longer had the same depth. After two decades of complete dominance in Leinster, Kilkenny's underage production line has stalled. Since winning All-Ireland minor and U-21 titles in 2008, Kilkenny have only added one All-Ireland, the 2010 minor.
With the development squads model so firmly in place now, the likelihood of finding diamond players beyond minor level is less likely than it was a decade ago.
That reality has also shown up another trend. Apart from Walsh and Matthew Ruth, the majority of other breakthrough players since 2011 have been goalkeepers, defenders or midfielders – David Herity, Eoin Murphy, Paul Murphy, Richie Doyle, Paddy Hogan, Kieran Joyce, Cillian Buckley (although he plays as a forward), Conor Fogarty and Lester Ryan.
"In the last seven years, we haven't produced a Richie Power or a Richie Hogan in Kilkenny," says Adrian Ronan, former player and Kilkenny minor manager in 2011 and 2012.
"Outstanding forwards are the difference between most teams and that supply has definitely dried up. Those special forwards are not there anymore. So, we do have a problem."
That perception is not completely new either. Former player John Power once told a story about another former team-mate predicting years of drought after the 1998 All-Ireland final defeat to Offaly because "the players just aren't there." And then Kilkenny went on to become the greatest team of all time.
Players just step up. In 1998, the Kilkenny intermediates had 16 players for a challenge game and Henry Shefflin was the only sub. Paul Murphy wasn't a standout player at U-21 level, but he won All Stars in his first two seasons on the team in 2011 and 2012 and is now one of the game's outstanding defenders.
Between 2006-2013, at least one player with a residency on the panel suddenly announced himself each season by reaching unprecedented standards; 'Cha' Fitzpatrick (2006), Brian Hogan (2007), Eoin Larkin (2008), Michael Rice (2009), Michael Fennelly (2010), Richie Hogan (2011), TJ Reid and Paul Murphy (2012) and Kieran Joyce (2013). To date, Colin Fennelly looks set to become that player this year.
"It won't be so much a change in personnel that will be visible this year," says Richie Mulrooney, who managed Kilkenny to All-Ireland minor titles in 2008 and 2010.
"You will see Paul Murphy, Colin Fennelly and Richie Hogan taking over the leadership of the team as JJ (Delaney), Tommy (Walsh), Henry (Shefflin), Brian Hogan and Jackie (Tyrrell) move on over the next year or two."
Kilkenny's young players don't have the same pedigree or history of success now that their predecessors had. Yet new players also grow quickly from being hot-housed in a training environment dominated by some of the game's greatest hurlers. Just as importantly, young players quickly learn the standards great teams demand.
Kilkenny's success has been so constant and their standard so high that it is still unreasonable to expect young players to match the standard set by the greatest team of all time. The recent fall-off at underage is also reflected by the fact that there are currently no U-21s on the panel.
Serving an arduous apprenticeship has often been a prerequisite to making Brian Cody's teams and the majority of players introduced this spring are in their mid-20s. "In most other counties, those lads would have been tried and either made it or failed by this stage," says Mulrooney. "In Kilkenny, a fella gets to prove himself at U-21 and with his club and he won't be just thrown in on one good underage performance. They have to do it consistently."
In his 15 years as Kilkenny manager, Cody has only ever promoted two players straight from the minors onto the senior championship team: JJ Delaney and 'Cha' Fitzpatrick. Cody is not easily convinced about young players, but everyone has to bide their time.
"Cody doesn't always go for the best young players," says Ronan. "The guys he is using now, he has been moulding for years at the back end of the panel. They have been slowly developing the character Cody looks for."
Cody knew after last summer that he needed to inject more youth and pace, as well as increasing the squad's depth. Walter Walsh is the only player to have started every league game and Kilkenny have used 32 players in this campaign, three more than in 2006, when Cody began the construction of his third team.
The marquee players back then had a more positive age-profile and less mileage clocked up, while Kilkenny don't have as many quality players rolling off the production line now.
The slowing down of that process has also forced the county to rethink their development models. Kilkenny were outmuscled by Dublin to such an extent in the 2011 and 2012 Leinster minor championships that strength and conditioning programmes were introduced to the Kilkenny U-16s for the first time in 2013. That strength and conditioning culture is also now firmly in place at minor level.
Although the wear and tear of some of the older crew has been really evident this spring, Kilkenny have still delivered some devastating performances.
It seemed apt that any concerns about the machine grinding to a halt coincided with St Kieran's and Kilkenny CBS contesting the All-Ireland Colleges final.
Two of the best players on view in that final – Tommy Walsh and Darren Mullen – are both U-16 this year. In time, the current young generation will drive the machine forward but the senior team still has enough road to cover for the time being.
"The long-term is a worry, but everyone in Kilkenny is very excited about the short-term," says Ronan. "People are so loyal to the older generation that they're just focused on giving Tommy, Henry and JJ a proper send-off. They will worry about next year, next year."
For Cody's teams, the current year is always the only one that counts.
Three young Cats to watch
Suffered with knee injuries in the past and played a lot of his club hurling at midfield, but Cody has identified a role for him in the full-forward line. Serious pace over three or four yards, has adopted a philosophy Eddie Brennan patented – get the ball and go for goal. Has bagged 4-3 in five games.
Played really well for Shamrocks over the last few years. More of a stopper than a stylist but is sticky, combative and really effective. Not the type of half-back that will come up the field and nail a score but his man won't score much either, which is always the hallmark of a solid defender.
Like his brother Tommy, a complete utility player who can play anywhere but is most likely to feature in the half-back line or midfield. Was UL captain this year and their manager Brian Lohan was effusive in his praise. Came on at half-time against Dublin and was Kilkenny's best player in the second half.
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.