Sport Hurling

Friday 23 March 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Cody sparing the juice so Tipperary might squeeze in

Kilkenny are blending youth and experience for bigger days to come, says Jamesie O'Connor

JJ Delaney, Kilkenny
JJ Delaney, Kilkenny

Golf's greatest winner Jack Nicklaus called the energy it takes to be a champion 'the juice'. "You only have so much juice," he once said. "You try to save what you've got so you can use it when it means the most." No manager has been more adept over the years in recognising whether or not his players still have the juice than Brian Cody.

If Kilkenny erred in 2013, it may have been in burning too much of that precious energy in the wrong part of the year. There's a case to be made that the roots of their demise in last year's championship can be traced back to the pair of losses suffered in the opening two rounds of the league.

The importance Kilkenny have always attached to the competition and the pressure to turn things around, and even stave off relegation, resulted in many of their elder statesmen seeing more game time last spring than was necessary for an ageing team. Every game became a must-win, and by the time Tipperary had been defeated in the league final, there is no doubt the juice and mental energy expended meant the reserves were fatally depleted.

That was never going to be allowed happen this year. The rotation policy employed throughout the league continues today. With it, the search for the right blend of youth and experience, particularly at the back. Big decisions and hard calls lie ahead.

Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, Jackie Tyrrell, and JJ Delaney have been among Cody's most trusted generals and with 29 All-Ireland medals between them, four defensive pillars for most of the last decade. However, all four are now into their 30s. Do the Kilkenny management believe they will have enough pace in the team, with all four on the field, great and all as they have been, come high summer? Tony Kelly and Podge Collins in full flight, and the sight of Tommy Walsh disappearing into Danny Sutcliffe's rearview mirror, when Dublin saw off Kilkenny in Parnell Park, has to have them wondering.

At the moment, the selection strategy appears to be experience in the central defensive positions, with JJ at full-back, Jackie coming in for Brian Hogan at No 6 today, and pace on the flanks. The excellent Paul Murphy's position is guaranteed, but there will be savage competition for the remaining starting spots. The newcomers, Brian Kennedy, Joey Holden, who comes in on the wing, and Padraig Walsh, who moves to midfield to accommodate that change, have all been impressive in the games I have seen.

From a management perspective, that makes today the ideal test. Tipperary provide serious opposition and with good weather and a decent crowd in Thurles, any questions or doubts they might have as to how good these guys really are, and how their temperament will hold up on the bigger stage, will go a long way to being answered this afternoon.

Up front, the goal drought that really hurt them in the championship last summer hasn't been an issue this spring. They have hit the net 19 times, and the firepower we've come to associate with them doesn't appear in any way diminished. Mark Kelly, Jonjo Farrell and John Power have all been given game time and made contributions. TJ Reid is back fully fit, Henry Shefflin's form has been excellent and Colin Fennelly has stepped up in the absence of other senior players. With Eoin Larkin, Aidan Fogarty and Walter Walsh on the bench this afternoon, it means that regardless of the result Kilkenny have options. How hot will the competition for championship places be, between now and when the take the field against Offaly on June 7?

When Tipperary lost three in a row to Kilkenny, Clare and Galway, shipping 12 goals, I never subscribed to the view that the wheels were coming off.

They were missing key personnel, especially at the back against Kilkenny and Clare, and there were other positives to take from those performances. Losing in Galway was different, and meant their backs were to the wall against Dublin. That win shouldn't be underestimated. Dublin had beaten Kilkenny impressively the previous week, had it all to play for, and with Tipperary's run of results and where their confidence was, to win was a real test of character. I heard Eamon O'Shea interviewed on radio afterwards, and he repeatedly spoke about the spirit of the side and how it hadn't wavered.

Of course, the ultimate test of that spirit is today. Defensively at least, with both Conor O'Mahony and Padraic Maher back in the

side, most of the key holes the opposition were blowing through have now been plugged. The failure to unearth a new full-back has left them no option but to redeploy Padraic Maher from his favoured No 7 jersey. But with him there and Brendan Maher outside him at centre-back, there has been a better structure to the side.

Up front, they appear to have regained their rhythm and central to that has been the return, and return to form, of Bonner Maher. Tipperary are a different side when Bonner is fit and motoring well, and while the two goals he scored against Clare stood out, it's the other often unseen contributions that make him invaluable.

In Lar Corbett's absence, Seamus Callanan has had an excellent campaign. If there's a stain on his reputation it's that he hasn't done it against Kilkenny when it's really mattered. Noel McGrath is another against whom that charge could be levelled, so both have something to prove this afternoon. Elsewhere, Bubbles O'Dwyer has a lot of talent, Niall O'Meara looks like a real find and once more Tipperary look like a side that can score goals.

Kilkenny have owned this fixture since the 2010 All-Ireland but I have a suspicion that Tipperary will bring a big performance and, if we see enough of that juice, with home advantage they can win.

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