Saturday 16 December 2017

Immortality beckons for hurling's revolutionaries


INCONSISTENCY is a plague on many teams -- if something of a requirement to keep sport interesting and unpredictable -- and for the first half of Brian Cody's management career his selections were afflicted too. Fallible enough, at least, to have Kilkenny move naturally in the company of ordinary mortals. If you pricked them, did they not bleed, like the rest of us?

Though scarcely credible now, just ten years ago Kilkenny were striving to avoid the stigma of losing a third All-Ireland final in-a-row. It would have been an unprecedented blemish but they went out and blew all opponents away in a signal of what would eventually become a trademark efficiency and ruthlessness, a form of vengeance against complacency and settling for less. Now, an avalanche of All-Irelands later, they stand on the precipice of an unprecedented fifth triumph in succession.

Their last championship defeat was in 2005 and since winning the 2006 title almost in retribution for that last lapse, that gulf between Kilkenny and the rational world has grown jaw-droppingly wide and, with it, the game of hurling has been revolutionised.

Records thought indestructible have been obliterated and others hang by a thread. An aura of invincibility never before seen in hurling has developed around this Kilkenny team as it keeps raising the pedestal.

If they follow the form guide and beat Tipperary for the second year running they will have reached an altitude that may never be reached again in the game. They have become the undisputed kings of swing. Consistency is their calling card.

An acquaintance of some years ago, then well into old age, never relinquished his wonderment over why a truly good player could have an off day or fall below par.

There is something of the same rationale in the way Brian Cody governs Kilkenny and as a manager, it is his greatest feat, the relentless and tireless enforcement of the law he has laid down and peerless ability to extract the ultimate performance from his hurlers.

By now it is systematic -- he has them eating from the palm of his hand. He has been helped by an unprecedented throughput of outstanding hurlers -- several who can't make today's team are former All-Stars or All-Star material. But for all of Kilkenny's abundant resources the history of sport is littered with infuriating example of players who didn't fulfil their promise. Kilkenny have been able to set the patience and tolerance threshold exceedingly low.

The example comes from the top. Today one of the greatest ever hurlers it has been Ireland's pleasure to witness regularly over the last decade has defied a cruciate knee injury to make it back in time for a stab at a record-equalling eighth All-Ireland medal earned on the field of play.

In Henry Shefflin, Cody found the dream merger of virtues which form the basis of Kilkenny's ethos: highly skilled and smothered with accolades and honours from an early stage, Shefflin never allowed himself veer from the scripture and moral code. He is the only player to start all of Kilkenny's championship games under Cody reaching back to 1999.

Standing in Kilkenny's way are Tipperary, relying on a massive performance to upset the odds, along the lines of what they produced last September when the sides played out a thrilling final.

Tipperary did a lot of the hurling but a controversial penalty gave Kilkenny the break they needed and Shefflin's finish turned the match their way. That equalled Cork's four-in-a-row from the 1940s. Tipperary last won the All-Ireland in 2001 at a time when Kilkenny were a lot more human.

Five-in-a-row has proved beyond the grasp of the greatest GAA teams. The most celebrated near-miss was Kerry's in 1982 and it took an ideally-timely ambush in the shape of Seamus Darby's late goal to deny the Kingdom what seemed an almost inevitable place in history.

A Tipperary win might not be on the same outlandish scale of surprise, but it would still be a rare and peculiar sight to see Kilkenny depart a pitch defeated. We will believe it when we see it.

Sunday Independent

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