Thursday 22 February 2018

Is Cody watching Cats lose their aura of invincibility?

Offaly's glut of goals and being held to a draw by Dublin show that Kilkenny are more vulnerable than they have been in years

Kilkenny boss Brian Cody watched his All-Ireland champions struggle against Dublin last weekend
Kilkenny boss Brian Cody watched his All-Ireland champions struggle against Dublin last weekend
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Death, taxes and favourites winning replays.

Two are considered certainties in life, while the third bears considerable weight too, especially when the Kilkenny hurling team have been involved in more recent times.

No opposing manager knows this better than Dublin's Anthony Daly, whose Clare side, hammered by Waterford in their opening Munster championship game in May 2004, were able to recover sufficiently to force an All-Ireland quarter-final replay out of the defending champions more than two months later.

Inevitably the drawn game (1-13 each) provided their best chance and a lost opportunity. Daly had set up using Alan Markham as a sweeper behind his half-back line and it worked a treat.

Six days later, however, Kilkenny had revised sufficiently to win with a bit to spare, 1-11 to 0-9 in Thurles, a match dogged by the controversy over a facial injury sustained by Henry Shefflin.

Galway's Anthony Cunningham could relate the same regrets about not finishing the job the first day in last year's All-Ireland final, while Wexford's miserable run against Kilkenny was extended when the 1993 Leinster final ended level and they lost the replay by 2-12 to 0-11.

MISTAKE

For a replay loss in championship hurling, Kilkenny have to go back to the 1985 Leinster semi-final against Offaly, which was drawn 3-18 each before Offaly, who had been to the previous year's All-Ireland final, made no mistake second time around.

Thus it gives a background for what frequency Dublin must tune themselves into this week, underlining how history's hand is pressing down so hard on their shoulder.

Kilkenny, as favourites, don't lose replays. Isn't that right?

Last Sunday's draw in Portlaoise was the third time in seven championship matches over a period of time just short of 12 months that the All-Ireland champions have failed to close out a game. Defeat in last year's Leinster final was followed by an All-Ireland final draw and now this.

In fact it could be argued with some justification that the corresponding fixture against Dublin 12 months ago was the last time Kilkenny ruthlessly dominated a team from start to finish in a championship match, a manner of victory they had become accustomed to in recent years.

In each of their seven games since, incorporating last Sunday's draw, they have encountered trouble. Even last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary and the final replay against Galway, which were both won comfortably, presented first-half discomfort for them on each occasion while against Offaly this year it was their only time on Brian Cody's watch to concede four goals and survive.

It's always a risk to suggest that there is decline or staleness setting in. No team has developed a habit of coming back and making a mockery of those words.

Slowly but surely, however, the aura of invincibility around Kilkenny is beginning to erode that little bit because of injuries that have been just too persistent and overbearing.

On Sunday, Shefflin and Michael Fennelly were pucking a ball around beforehand but that was as close to the action as they got. It's hardly a coincidence that Kilkenny have struggled to put away opponents in their last two championship games that he has missed.

They are conditioned to surviving without him during the league but the enormity of his influence grows in his absence.

Cody's confirmation that Jackie Tyrrell was the only player they could expect back for the replay was a surprise given that Fennelly had taken part, according to reports last week, in a full training session. Fennelly has grown into one of this team's most inspiring leaders over the last three years, as the league final illustrated, but it's the second successive season that he has found himself treating a serious ankle injury.

Brian Hogan and Michael Rice both limped out of the dressing-room afterwards with injuries, while Paul Murphy's ankle, not broken according to reports last night but with significant enough ligament damage, leaves his participation in grave doubt.

Since making his comeback from a career-threatening injury earlier this year, Rice has struggled to put back-to-back matches together for club and county because of a troublesome hamstring. On Sunday he cut an anonymous figure in the opening half before being replaced at half-time, the body clearly troubling him.

Kilkenny will improve. TJ Reid will strengthen them from the start, Richie Power can't be as peripheral again and Tyrrell will give them some much needed conviction in the corner again.

One way or the other, though, the path is strewn with landmines waiting to detonate. Win or lose on Sunday and there is still a fourth weekend of action awaiting them seven or eight days later.

The qualifiers draw yesterday morning determined that, either way, Kilkenny will face one of the teams they share hurling's podium with right now – Tipperary in a second-round qualifier or Galway in a repeat of last year's Leinster final.

For a few years at the peak of their powers, Kilkenny could set their clocks and mark their calendars for August without too much interruption. But now the calendar is offering them no respite.

One way or another, the next two weekends have the capacity to test their resources and conviction like never before.

Irish Independent

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