How rivals view Kilkenny
Cody's Cats' insatiable pursuit of perfection has made lifting Liam a pipe dream for majority of counties
If some have begun to weary of Kilkenny's hegemony as Brian Cody's men set out tomorrow on another All-Ireland defence, the goading truth is that it was seeded by an era of rampant democracy in hurling.
While the '90s were the so-called 'Revolution Years', a stretch in which Clare, Offaly and Wexford all got to take home the Liam MacCarthy Cup – and Limerick should have done – they also formed Cody's modern education in the game.
Clare, particularly, challenged settled minds by pushing out hurling's physical boundaries like never before.
Their All-Ireland victories in '95 and '97 were, above all, triumphs of coercion. Ger Loughnane made Clare the hardest, fittest team in hurling. He recognised complacency in the old, traditional churches and decided that he could profitably rewrap that for his troops as blue-blood arrogance.
By the time Cody took charge of Kilkenny in late '98, he understood that what a hurler had in his wrists had now been subordinated by the virtues of humility and athleticism. Tradition was no longer any protection from the man who wanted your land.
After the '01 All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Galway, Cody no longer had a doubt in his head about where Kilkenny needed to go. And, so, he created a template that has slowly taken the game away from all but a small minority. No county in GAA history has dominated as Kilkenny now do, with their nine All-Irelands secured in the past 13 years.
Donal Og Cusack, presumably, did not mean to be disparaging when branding them hurling's 'Stepford Wives' in his autobiography. But the essence of what Cody has achieved is to create an ecosystem in which conformity supplants melodrama.
Ollie Moran remembers a moment maybe three minutes from the end of the 2007 All-Ireland final that captured the essence of their psyche.
His Limerick team had been 2-3 to 0-0 down before they'd even caught their breaths that day, the contest already rendered cold as a month-old cadaver.
But Kilkenny just kept hurling to the end and, when Richie Power went for a late vanity score that sailed high and luridly wide, he was instantly called before the court of his peers.
Ollie recalls: "It was a kind of pot-shot by Richie, a poor enough wide. And I remember Tommy Walsh running up the field until he was almost on top of him, lambasting Richie for the shot. The game was over to all intents and purposes, but they were still driving on, looking for more.
"That's just the way they're conditioned and, as awful as it was to be on the receiving end of it, you had to admire it in them."
Cody has taken arguably the finest hurlers of this or any previous generation and turned them into a killing machine. He recoils from the faintest hint of preciousness in a player.
In his autobiography, he tells of a Walsh Cup game against Dublin at Parnell Park just 19 weeks after devouring Waterford in the '08 All-Ireland final.
There was no hot water for the Kilkenny players to shower afterwards, yet not a single player complained. Their silence pleased him for – as he put it – it confirmed that they had "things in perspective".
Eoin Murphy was corner-back on that Waterford team obliterated on the county's biggest day since 1963. He holds an abiding memory of the Kilkenny forwards' work-rate.
"That's where their defending starts," he says. "If you're not willing to work, there's a fella on the bench who is. That's obviously just embedded in them. The tackling of their forwards is very, very good. I often say with my own club: 'Put yourself in the mind of the referee when you're tackling in terms of what you would get away with ... '
"Kilkenny just seem to be on the right side of that in terms of intensity and it really knocks you back.
"You might get around one fella, but there's another queuing up to hit you. And you're thinking: 'Where the hell did he come out of?'
"If you're a back, looking down the field at your forwards doing that, it's as good as a score nearly. It has to be inspiring."
Waterford lost that final in '08 by 23 points. That same year, in just Joe Dooley's second Leinster Championship game as Offaly manager, his young team faded after a brave half hour to lose by 15. It's the kind of arithmetic that can stifle hope.
Dooley admits: "It's a fair challenge now trying to get a team into a state of mind where they'd be confident to go out and take on the present Kilkenny team. Tipperary will, but there's not too many others who – if they put their hand on their hearts – could say they have a good chance of beating these fellas.
"The bottom line is that Kilkenny have the best players that ever played the game. And there's no sign of them going away, is there?"
It clearly isn't Cody's or, indeed, county secretary Ned Quinn's job to worry about the broader game and a growing suspicion that the standards Kilkenny now set will forever be beyond the majority of opponents. Maybe Dooley captures the paradox in a nutshell.
"You'd have to say what Kilkenny are doing is good from a spectator's point of view," he says. "To be able to see a team of their calibre is nothing less than a privilege. But it's not good for other counties' hopes of winning an All-Ireland.
"I mean, if Kilkenny weren't there in the morning, you'd have a very competitive championship, wouldn't you? Everybody would get wired up for it. If Kilkenny went out, a lot of other teams would get energised to put in a bigger effort.
"It's like when Birr eventually got knocked off the pedestal in Offaly, a number of clubs got energy because they suddenly saw a chance of winning a championship.
"But when that's not the case, it's up to other teams to climb up to Kilkenny."
Yet, how damaging might such unprecedented dominance have long-term on those counties who see the champions now play at an altitude they cannot logically aspire to?
Much is often made of Kilkenny's unsuccessful efforts to maintain an inter-county presence in football and the fact that their resources (and children's dreams) are all restricted to a single sport. The two issues are, clearly, intertwined.
Murphy's work often takes him to Kilkenny and he is struck by the uniformity of what he sees.
"Any time you see kids on a break from school, or even just going to school in Kilkenny, they have hurleys in their hands," he says.
"It just seems to be part of the homework up there. I mean I don't know too many big rugby players that have come out of Kilkenny, I don't know too many Gaelic footballers or big soccer players either. It's all hurling.
"In saying that, you just have to admire them really. I know that I, personally, wouldn't have survived in Kilkenny. I wouldn't have been good enough in the air and I was never that physical. The one thing I had that might stand to me was a bit of awareness, because Kilkenny hurlers are incredibly aware.
"And you never see them banging the hurley off the ground or showing dissent. You never see them dropping the heads the way you might see with other teams. All of that has to be coming from a young age."
Kilkenny open their summer campaign tomorrow against Offaly, a county that has not beaten them in championship since the '98 All-Ireland final (in other words, never in Cody's time). It will take something truly epochal for Ollie Baker's men to bridge that gap in history.
Moran believes this championship will be a two or – at best – three-horse race to the line.
"What Kilkenny are doing is not reachable for most counties," says the Limerick man.
"If Galway can get their act together, we might have three teams in contention for the All-Ireland. Kilkenny's dominance is certainly not good for hurling as a game going forward, but that isn't their fault. They're forcing such a standard that they're, without a doubt, the best team of the last century. So what can you do? It's up to everyone else to match them, but you would be worried that those standards are just unattainable now.
"It's almost become a case of people hoping they might drop a little and there will be some kind of levelling off. But people have been saying that for the last five or six years and it hasn't happened.
"They've just taken it to an incredible level. I mean you look at 'All-Ireland Gold' on TV and no disrespect to the very good teams of the '90s like Clare and Offaly and Wexford and Limerick, but none of them would live with this Kilkenny team. I doubt any other team in history would."
Of course, how much of what they've achieved is down to Cody nobody can precisely measure. Murphy is intrigued by the sense of evenness that surrounds them. He read recently that none of the players visited the manager while he recovered from his heart surgery and it struck him that that sounded neither strange nor contentious.
"The attitude was just leave him alone and he'll arrive back in his own time," he reflects.
"Usually when a manager has been in position for four or five years, you hear fellas saying it's gone stale listening to the same voice.
"But Kilkenny have such a system in place, you'd wonder if another manager was put in now, would they hurl any different?
"I'm reading Mickey Harte's book at the moment and he's been with Tyrone for double digit years too. He talks about changing himself every so often, changing the team dynamic.
"But I don't think Brian Cody has changed too much during his time with Kilkenny. Then again, maybe he doesn't have to. The players still can't seem to get enough of it, which is amazing given how long some of them have been on the road."
So can they be beaten in 2013?
Moran: "I'd still give Tipp a fighting chance and I'd say Galway won't be without one either. But you could kind of bookmark the number of times Kilkenny have been caught and they always seem to come back a couple of games later, stronger than ever. I think they're beatable. It's not that it can't be done, it's just on the law of averages, it won't be done very often."
Dooley: "You'd have to say Tipp are the most likely to catch them. They appear to have the work put in and look a much happier camp than they were the last few years.
"Tipp's biggest danger is that they could get caught first day out in Munster against Limerick this weekend. But I think if they can stay in the championship and make it to Croke Park in September, they'll be very hard to beat."
Murphy: "You could see Kilkenny being caught on a day alright. But I suppose if Kilkenny played Galway 10 times, you'd probably fancy Kilkenny to win seven or eight.
"So, you're waiting a while then for the other two or three. Galway got one of those chances last year, didn't take it and paid the price. It's probably only themselves or Tipp that can beat Kilkenny. The odds are stacked against them though."