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Jackie Tyrell, Kilkenny

Jackie Tyrell, Kilkenny

SPORTSFILE

Jackie Tyrell, Kilkenny

On a Monday night in early October, Brian Cody invited some of his most trusted old soldiers to a room in Hotel Kilkenny for a meeting with the new management team.

Some of the greatest names of modern hurling presented themselves individually at a table, behind which now sat two men they'd soldiered with until recently in the trenches. For Jackie Tyrrell, the sight of Derek Lyng and James McGarry sitting next to Cody and Mick Dempsey fed a gentle ripple of excitement.

After a year of strained improvisation that, on occasion, felt like the placing of band-aids over gaping holes, Tyrrell now sensed fresh energy in the room.

If there was surprise and some disappointment at Martin Fogarty's departure, the arrival of Lyng and McGarry felt strangely reaffirming for a dressing-room accustomed to working off the Cody template.

As Tyrrell puts it: "It did feel strange at first, a bit different, because I think Derek still played for Urlingford last year and James was involved with Ballyhale. They would have hurled alongside a lot of us. But when I heard they were getting involved, I was genuinely excited.

"They're both hugely respected, two fellas who are well able to talk in a dressing-room and who would be very much known as thinkers on the game."

Just this week, Cody referred to a "kind of inevitability" about Kilkenny's eviction from last year's Championship, their form never quite flowing and an epidemic of injuries severely restricting management's hand. They lost to Dublin in a Leinster semi-final replay, then limped through to an All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork where they found themselves effectively bullied.

DICTATED

Kilkenny looked like an old pug that had, maybe, taken a shot too many.

"The big thing was the game hadn't been played on our terms," reflects Tyrrell, a six-time All-Ireland winner. "It was played on Cork's terms. They dictated the pace and, with Henry's sending-off, they had the extra man.

"We were constantly chasing that game, Cork were so up for it. I'll always remember the body language of the Cork lads when Anthony Nash saved Richie Power's penalty.

"In other games, if we didn't dictate the terms, it would be 50/50. But that day it was all played on Cork's terms and from the word go, we were playing second fiddle.

"I don't know even if Henry hadn't got sent off would it have changed a whole lot.

"I mean I know it changed the dynamic of the game, but I don't know if it'd have changed the result."

To a group renowned for the heat of their competitive spirit, the loss to Cork seemed to pose profound questions for their future.

Had they finally been reined in by Father Time? Did Cody, cardiac surgery behind him, still nurse the quiet fury that defined Kilkenny hurling for a decade and a half? Would Henry's walk to the line be his last act in a county shirt?

There would be no trumpeted announcements through the winter, that isn't the Cody way. Just murmurs of old commitments reaffirmed. Not a single player took the option of retirement. It was as if none could let the story end with that defeat in Thurles.

Soon after those meetings with senior players, there were fitness tests at Carlow IT and the sense of labourers stealthily returning to the field.

And Cody?

Life without him in their corner would be unimaginable to these men.

Tyrrell's connections go deeper than most, all the way back to his schooldays at St Patrick's, De La Salle and a giant of a headmaster with timber metre stick in hand that "he'd wear off the chair and scare the life out of us!"

The two are clubmates, of course, with James Stephens too, but Tyrrell doesn't pretend to have been privy last autumn to Cody's long-term plans.

"People always say I must know him better than most," he chuckles.

"But I probably only know Brian as well as anyone else around.

"He's very much his own man, his own person.

"But I'd have absolutely no doubt about his commitment coming back this year. I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have done it if he didn't feel he still had the hunger."

So what tactical road will Kilkenny follow in 2014? Both of last year's All-Ireland finalists chose a game predicated upon coveting possession and it has been broadly implied that Kilkenny's traditional approach of high, early deliveries to self-sufficient forwards may have become out-dated. Tyrrell's view is that adaptability has never been more important.

"People can get very bogged down in all this stuff about style of hurling," he says. "Because Clare win an All-Ireland playing the possession-game, suddenly that's the only way to go. Maybe the way of just winning your battle and hitting the ball long, which would have been the traditional way, isn't as successful now as it was.

"But I think it's more about being versatile and able to adapt than it is about slavishly following one system or another. If you go down that route and hear that a team's training at six in the morning, you'll end up doing it at five. And, if you're successful, then someone else will have to go to four next year. Where do you draw the line?"

He knows the hurling landscape has never been more heavily mined and hears, loud and clear, the murmurings about Kilkenny's back-men particularly and the high mileage in their legs. Will pace burn them?

For Tyrrell personally it has been a career-long question that he has faced down without worry.

"I think it's just a psyche in the GAA," he says. "If a lad makes a team at 19; when he's 26 or 27, if he's seen to turn slowly for a ball, it's 'Ah sure that lad is bet! He's gone!' All through my years I've been hearing 'Aw he's too slow for corner-back, blah de blah.'

"You just get used to it. Personally I laugh it off. I've listened to it all my career, so it goes in one ear and out the other. It just seems to be the nature of the GAA. If you've been around for a few years and you get caught once, they write you off. 'Aw sure he's in trouble.'

"I think people can be a bit narrow-minded on certain things. Then we're so results driven, measuring people in All-Irelands and National Leagues that sometimes the bigger picture is staring them straight in the face and they don't see it."

A torn quad muscle proved a constant irritation for Tyrrell last summer, given the simple reason that rest was not an option. Once pitched down the back-door route, Kilkenny were reduced to running repairs. It took a debilitating toll in the end, but they did leave the Championship with one untouchable memory.

The July Saturday they played that phase two All-Ireland qualifier against Tipperary in Nowlan Park will be remembered long after battles played at far higher altitude are forgotten.

For Tyrrell, that was a day encapsulating everything Kilkenny hold precious.

"It wasn't so much a hurling game as an emotional roller-coaster," he reflects now. "The game was so hyped up, Kilkenny was buzzing nearly the day before even. The stand was packed more than an hour before throw-in. The heat that day ... everything just went into it.

"And it was like an All-Ireland final when you saw the emotion at the end, when you saw Brian's reaction, the reaction of the players, the reaction of the Tipperary players, ecstasy at one end, devastation at the other. It had the genuine feel of an All-Ireland final. You certainly wouldn't have thought it was a qualifier game the way the players went at it.

"But that's just the Kilkenny-Tipp rivalry. A lot of people had probably penciled that game in for later in the year, but it was on our doorstep a lot sooner. And, somehow, we just dug so deep and produced. Everything that we had as Kilkenny players came out that night. Psychologically, mentally, emotionally.

"We left everything on the field, as did Tipperary. And only for a great save by JJ Delaney, it might easily have been a different result. You watched again in the highlights and he probably didn't know a whole lot about it, but just threw his body in front of Eoin Kelly. If JJ hadn't stopped it, I don't think Eoin Murphy would have. And a goal at that stage could easily have changed the dynamic of the game.

"JJ doing that maybe summed up a lot of what we are about as a group, more so than ever that night. If we were going to be beaten, we were going to die with our socks on."

Perhaps that evening drained more than just 70 minutes from their bodies. For Kilkenny never looked quite the same again and would watch from afar as Davy Fitzgerald's Clare closed out a spectacular Championship.

VELOCITY

Davy's success was little surprise to Tyrrell who had hurled Fitzgibbon under the Clare man for Limerick IT. What did surprise him was the velocity with which Clare went up the mountain.

"I suppose at the start of last year, everyone would have thought Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway," says Tyrrell. "Clare wouldn't have been seen as contenders. The thing that surprised me was the maturity that they showed and the way they accelerated when they saw the opportunity.

"I didn't think it would come as soon to them. But I do know that when Davy puts his mind to something, he's very determined."

Such perfect symmetry then from the fixtures committee in Croke Park that, as the Allianz League gets under way this weekend, Kilkenny brace themselves for a journey straight into the lions' den.

Their clash with the All-Ireland champions tomorrow is the pick of the first round and, on last year's evidence, this league will present no easy rubbers. Kilkenny lost their opening two games last season and might well have been relegated before finding the momentum to win a 16th title.

Now they return to the battlefield, ready to discover what is left within.

"Watching all the great games towards the end of last year's Championship was brilliant for a neutral, but absolute torture for an inter-county player who's been there and done it," reflects Tyrrell.

"It was tough to look at but I suppose, when you look at yourself in the mirror, you realise you just weren't good enough.

"I didn't even consider retiring. I'm 31 and I feel I still have something to offer. The buzz of it all is what keeps driving me. The day that isn't there is the day I'll say 'Jackie, this isn't for you anymore'. But I'm a very highly motivated guy, I know what I want and I know what it takes to get there.

"A lot of science has come into the preparation. The days of going back a stone overweight and saying 'Sure I'll be grand, I'll start losing the belly in March' are gone.

"And playing Clare in the first round of the league tees everything up nicely now. We'll want to go there in good shape and they won't want us coming down there and beating them. So it should be good. It's going to be a very interesting year."

* This year marks the 22nd year of Allianz's sponsorship of the National Leagues, making them the

longest-standing supporter of

Gaelic games at inter-county level.

Irish Independent