Comerford: Cody's new approach puts refreshed Cats back on glory trail
"Let's face it," former Kilkenny All-Ireland winning captain Andy Comerford says, "the number one thing that affected them last year was the injuries. There's no use in saying anything else."
Of all the questions that have been asked this spring, perhaps two swirled around most.
How would Clare's young guns carry the tag of All-Ireland champions? And how would Brian Cody's empire respond to a short summer and a new world order?
Davy Fitzgerald's tyros have carried the tag lightly, while Kilkenny have moved into tomorrow's Allianz national hurling league semi-final against Galway with ominous ease.
And Comerford's assertion that injuries stalled their season before they could ever get going underlines a quiet confidence in the county that they are on the right road again.
So far, 31 players have been used in six league games, with a combination of new faces and rejuvenated old heads combining to put a skip in the step of their supporters.
Comerford points to the form of Walter Walsh – the only man to start all of their league games so far – and the emergence of Joey Holden as to how they have progressed.
"Walter Walsh is a revelation at half-forward and seems to be the go-to man for Kilkenny. He's one of the number one forwards and if he's not hurling, then Kilkenny aren't playing well. I have been very impressed with him this year," says Comerford.
"He (Holden) had played well with Shamrocks but maybe people didn't think he was county material. But it's funny with some players – when they are put in with better players, they improve and he has certainly done that."
They have yet to roll out all the big guns at once. Henry Shefflin saw action earlier this season than usual but has been used sparingly.
Established stars like Brian Hogan and Tommy Walsh have spent a lot of time on the bench but Kilkenny have kept winning, suggesting that the injuries that Comerford says proved fatal to the cause last year might not be as much of an issue this time around.
It is not quite back to the days where Cody could often afford to leave All Stars or multiple All-Ireland winners on the bench, but Comerford argues that the championship 15 is far from certain.
"They definitely have 21 or 22 players they can call on and they are as good as the starting 15, and they probably have the long lip on them when they are not starting. That's what you want as a manager.
"There is a different approach in the league this year as well. Before, they played the team considered the number one team in a lot of the league and it led to lads picking up niggling injuries and maybe the performances weren't as good as they should be because they were on the go for so long.
"This year it's a different approach and it is paying dividends at the moment. He still has all these lads to come back in and it's going to make for very interesting training matches in Nowlan Park, which is where the manager will look to test these players."
Tomorrow, Galway get another chance to topple Kilkenny. They were way off the pace in Nowlan Park when the sides met in the league proper.
The final score shows they lost by just three points, but that they were nine points down for most of the second half is a more accurate reflection of that encounter.
However, history has shown that they like to save their best for the Cats. The 1986 All-Ireland semi-final and the final of a year later still bring shivers to some in Kilkenny.
The meetings in 2001 and 2005 were further reminders of how good Galway can be. However, the Leinster final of two years ago tops them all as it came off the back of a league game earlier that year that saw Kilkenny run out 25-point winners.
"Any day there is a danger and you can be caught," Comerford warns. "Galway can be really good or they can be off the boil, as they know all to well themselves.
"When they strike it right they can beat anyone. Go back to the All-Ireland two years ago and they had Kilkenny beaten all ends up and Henry pulled them out of the fire.
"You'd be hoping that Kilkenny will be in the right frame of mind.
"The league is important to them because there is a mental thing of winning. If they win it, it's great and it would give the young lads confidence – and the whole thing in hurling is confidence. The days of putting out dummy teams in the league are over. Managers want to see what players are capable of when the pressure comes on."