Thursday 23 November 2017

More evolution than revolution

Brian Cody is shaping a new team from within, and without the anticipated cull, writes Damian Lawlor

LAST winter, weeks after their side lost to Tipperary in the All-Ireland final, a national radio station announced the retirements of Kilkenny duo James Ryall and Mick Kavanagh.

One journalist sent Kavanagh a text to congratulate and thank him for his co-operation during an extensive career which had yielded an incredible 12 Leinster and seven All-Ireland medals. Kavanagh replied: 'Thanks a million but I'm not going anywhere yet'. Even with all the honours he had accumulated, Kavanagh still felt he had more to contribute.

"He's still important to us," says former selector Noel Skehan. "If we're in trouble at any stage [today] Mick can make a difference. I guarantee you he is in Nowlan Park pushing the lads all the way for their places. Why would you not want him with all he has to offer?"

Ryall, however, did retire, and as December arrived Derek Lyng also stepped down after nine years and six All-Ireland medals. Game-time had become limited and the possibility of a hip replacement in the next 10 years loomed. The decorated midfielder decided enough was enough.

"I didn't want to start getting frustrated because I wasn't getting my game, I didn't want to end on a sour note," he said at the time. "It's not a decision I enjoyed making. I love hurling and would love to continue playing, but it has to end sometime. I have to be realistic -- I'm 32 now, and to go back again next year I'd need to be able to go flat out to get myself back on the team -- I can't do that."

Martin Comerford soon joined him. With the same number of Celtic crosses and nine Leinster medals, Comerford only once lasted 70 minutes in 2010.

People wondered if Noel Hickey would be next to exit. The movement of the Tipp attack had opened holes in Kilkenny's defence and left the full-back line vulnerable. But he duly reported for pre-season training last November and today he'll man the edge of the square.

"Good full-backs don't grow on trees, so where would you be going without Hickey?" asks Skehan. "The Tipp forwards were unstoppable last September but for 10 years this lad has been shutting out danger around the edge of the square. He doesn't hang around and can clear off both left and right. I wouldn't even contemplate playing him at corner because Hickey is still the best full-back we have."

Another of that vintage, Eddie Brennan, also decided to stay put and fight for his place. Not many teams could afford to leave out a 32-year-old forward with 26-65 in championship scores to his name, but Brennan has lost his place and is still adjusting to life on the margins.

"Eddie should be our first man in today," says one former team-mate. "He's been in great form since the league ended. He wasn't used in the Leinster final but if things get hairy against Waterford he'll be sprung. He's only 32 and isn't finished yet by a long shot."

Brennan could have kicked the heels up, but on the training paddock he's demonstrated that the flame is still flickering. After featuring prominently in Kilkenny's drive for five, he remains a highly driven character.

There's been a training-ground resurgence, too, for Cha Fitzpatrick, who is once again to the fore in Brian Cody's thoughts despite seeing less than 200 minutes of championship action over the past three seasons. Still only in his mid-20s, it was reasonable to speculate that Fitzpatrick's bubble had also burst; that the physicality and intensity of the modern game had deemed him surplus to requirements after ever-present campaigns between 2003 and '06. But after recovering from a heavy bout of tonsillitis earlier in the year, he's shown form where it counts -- Nowlan Park.

His return gives Kilkenny a very different feel to last year's All-Ireland final. Lyng and Comerford have left, Aidan Fogarty can't run at full steam yet through injury while John Dalton, hit with an eight-week ban after the league final, can't get his place back. Goalkeeper PJ Ryan is also in limbo after being ousted by David Herity.

Paddy Hogan has finally broken his championship duck by making two appearances this season -- he won't start today but should be first defender used. Colin Fennelly has taken Brennan's spot, while John Mulhall and Matthew Ruth have climbed the bench's pecking order. All change, then, from the side that lost to Tipp.

"No, not really," insists three-time All-Ireland medal winner John Henderson, who represented the county for 13 years. "Change was enforced on Brian at the start of the year because we had a few retirements and loads of injuries. That's why I feel so sorry for Eddie Brennan more than anyone. He was basically left to lead the line in the National League with inexperienced guys around him. He tried hard to win ball, ran lots and tackled hard -- you could tell he was hungry. But the shape of the team was poor and he suffered by losing his place when everyone was back fit. It must be extremely hard to look on after what he's achieved in the game. But he's doing it."

Henderson makes the point that while there have been personnel changes, the anticipated mass cull never materialised.

"Any time there has been a changing of the guard here it has usually come after a defeat, but how could there be a cull this time around? I think common sense is now hitting people in this county and this myth of Kilkenny's legendary squad depth is finally buried for once and for all. The bottom line is without Henry [Shefflin] and a few guys who were injured, we were made to look very ordinary and we simply don't have these imaginary and fabled reserves that people keep harping on about.

"While the panel is hugely important, the starting 15 always defines your form and chances. You saw it with the Cork footballers -- they lost 30 per cent of their team in one weekend and the rest couldn't cope last Sunday. We'd be quite similar -- we've been unlucky with injuries recently and up through the ranks we haven't set the world alight either. Our minors were comprehensively beaten lately, so all those variables bring us back down to earth.

"Anyway, I don't think Brian Cody is half as quick to change as people reckon. He has shown great loyalty to lads who have soldiered with him and usually gives them a chance to respond after bad games. If there's been one criticism of him in Kilkenny it's that he's actually been slow to make changes sometimes. So this theory of mass alteration in our team is simply not right."

Henderson confesses to club bias when asked to discuss the merits of David Herity's inclusion at the expense of his Fenians colleague PJ Ryan. Herity has been outstanding in his two championship appearances to date, with one memorable block against Dublin's Shane Durkin. He has the position nailed down but while Henderson accepts he's an accomplished goalkeeper, he wonders if Ryan did much wrong to lose out.

"Could PJ really be blamed for any of the four goals in last year's All-Ireland final? Maybe they felt he should have got to one of them but I don't really see why he's had to make way. His puck-outs were top class and his shot-stopping very good. He waited a long time to get his chance and was doing fine. That said, David Herity is a very good 'keeper and good luck to him."

Paul Murphy has gained the number two shirt while Paddy Hogan looked to have his spot in the half-back line nailed down and started the championship against Wexford, playing the full 70 minutes on his debut, but in the lead-up to the Leinster final endured a torrid time against Eoin Larkin in training and didn't make the cut for the provincial decider. Yet, after 35 minutes they sent an SOS for him and he replaced JJ Delaney, who was struggling himself. Hogan is firmly in the frame to appear at some stage this afternoon but for now it's the tried-and-trusted trio of Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan and Delaney.

With Fitzpatrick giving Cody another option in the engine room, Michael Rice can continue in his new home on the half-forward line, a move that gives the Cats more scoring clout and penetration than last year. Henderson rates Colin Fennelly as more of a half-forward than corner, but says that the Ballyhale man had to get his chance somewhere.

"Eddie might be better in the corner, but he's coming near the end while Colin is the future. We've all had a shot at getting the jersey over the years and Colin deserves his opportunity. Kilkenny needs him to come good because we don't have many options. John Mulhall is an unpredictable player, sometimes he will disappoint you and other times he will leave you with a massive smile on your face. He needs to earn the chance to start a game and nail down his place."

Matthew Ruth is also looking in, anxious to join the party but has only one minute's senior championship experience thus far. "That's the other side of it," Henderson adds. "Matthew and John need game-time and experience to progress but they're not getting a whole lot of it either."

While there hasn't been a massive turnaround in personnel, there has, however, been a slight shift on the training ground. The high-intensity training matches continue but there's also a serious emphasis on vision and movement, with the squad sometimes breaking into 15 on 15 across a confined area of the pitch to improve off-the-ball running.

And after being beaten in the aerial exchanges in both the 2009 and 2010 final there's also a renewed focus on gaining primary possession from dropping ball, once the hallmark of the Cody era.

By gently tweaking the template, and combining their wealth of experience with a gentle infusion of new blood, Kilkenny are subtly remoulding this team while still being competitive. There hasn't been wholesale change, nor is there any staleness.

Compared to last year's All-Ireland final, however, there's most definitely a reshaped spine to the team with Herity, Brian Hogan, Fitzpatrick, Richie Power and Larkin all assuming central positions that others manned last year. Their tank may have emptied last September but with little fuss or disruption they have refuelled again.

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