Monday 18 December 2017

Magical Walsh in league of his own

Tommy Walsh
Tommy Walsh
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Prior to the start of the current league campaign, Tommy Walsh made a solemn vow to make up for lost time.

Casting a critical eye on himself during last season, the only campaign in a decade of service to Kilkenny that he didn't finish with an All Star, he promised to address his dip in form below the standards he had become accustomed to.

He also underlined how he was coming into his favourite part of the season. Not for him the long summer evenings laced with Nowlan Park training sessions and three and four-week stretches between games.

For Walsh, the faster the games come at him, the better. Whether it's an inter-provincial semi-final in the middle of February or a Shinty international in the north of Scotland some time in October, he has invariably found the time and the resolve to be there.

Henry Shefflin's record of service in turning out for every one of Brian Cody's championship matches since he took charge in 1999 is well documented. But what's easily forgotten is that Walsh, too, has punched in a 100pc record on Cody's watch since making his championship debut in 2003.


What is, perhaps, even more impressive and reflective of the attitude of the nine-time All Star is his league record over the last 10 years.

Due to injury and club commitments with Ballyhale, Shefflin has only played in six of Kilkenny's last 53 league matches since 2006.

By contrast, Walsh has only missed six games across the same period, including a three-match run in 2011 that concluded with the league final defeat to Dublin.

It is quite a staggering record of service that Walsh only missed one league match (in 2004) during his first five seasons of involvement from 2003 to 2007 inclusive. That amounts to 37 out of 38 games, though one of those games he featured in during the 2004 campaign was as a substitute.

Beyond that, the games he has missed have been sporadic. With no early-season club duties to tie him down and a kind run with injuries (2011 apart), no one else has reflected the mentality that Kilkenny players bring to the league better than Walsh, who clocks in with 72 league appearance in all out of a potential 79 since the beginning of the 2003 campaign.

With that level of dedication from a senior player mirrored throughout the squad, Kilkenny vulnerability just hasn't existed in these games.

Team selections have invariably been tight in league matches, with the balance almost always weighted in favour of experience over experiment. Very few players have been introduced without making an impact that has sustained them for a couple of seasons.

Perhaps names like Austin Murphy, Pat Hartley, Eoin Guinan, Sean Cummins, Niall Walsh, goalkeeper Colin McGrath, Michael Murphy, Peter Cleere and Damien Fogarty, who have all seen league action over the last six seasons, drift from the memory a little easier. This year, however, circumstances have loosened the reigns a little and already there are signs that the shape of the current squad in this league is a nod to a future beyond 2013.

Cody has given game time to a greater number of players (26) in four league matches than he did in seven 2012 matches, when 25 were used.

A crippling early-season injury list that saw Shefflin, Michael Fennelly, TJ Reid, Walter Walsh, Michael Rice and Cillian Buckley among those sidelined, forced their hand, but the desire to add more quality to the higher squad numbers is also prevalent.

On the back of so many retirements in recent seasons, the bank of experience is eroding and needs to be bumped up.

So, league debuts have been handed to Ger Alyward, Mark Kelly, Lester Ryan, Walter Walsh and Padraig Walsh, while greater responsibility has been handed to Conor Fogarty and Eoin Murphy, who has moved into prime position to be the first-choice goalkeeper.

The success in recent league campaigns has been as much about producing players as winning.

In 2012 both aims were achieved with the embedding of Richie Doyle and Buckley into the side throughout the campaign.

In 2011, Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly made the required impact in spring to go on to greater things in the summer. The concern within Kilkenny is that, while the production lines are still working, they are not producing players with the potential to be the next Shefflin, Walsh or Delaney, although that theory has yet to really be put to the test.

In the balanced environment that exists, however, new players have the opportunity to prosper.

So far Kilkenny have probably performed better in the two games that they have lost than the two that they have won, but the Cats have comfortably stayed afloat in one of the most competitive Division 1A leagues for some time.

Cork arrive in Nowlan Park for the first time since that massacre four years ago that came quickly after the end of the third players' strike on Leeside in less than a decade.

And they'll find that the more the faces change, the more things stay the same when it comes to the power of their hosts.

Irish Independent

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