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Preparing to resume business of winning

W HEN Wexford manager Colm Bonnar was asked to survey the hurling landscape recently, there was an assumption he would tilt towards his native county, Tipperary, and flag their dominance of the coming years.

But the Cashel man took a different slant. Although Tipp's confidence is soaring and they possess burgeoning production lines, Bonnar feels a backlash from a wounded Kilkenny is on the cards. He surmised that they, and not Tipp, could add another three All-Ireland titles in the short to medium term.

"It wouldn't surprise me to see Kilkenny come back and win the All-Ireland," he said. "Tipp had a brilliant final and beat them by eight points but overall, you saw what Kilkenny did to Galway in the Leinster final and to Dublin in the first round. They also destroyed Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final. Tipp struggled against Galway and lost to Cork in Munster so, for me, Kilkenny are still the team to beat.

"Normally, Kilkenny would be out on holidays now and not taking the Walsh Cup seriously. But the League is a chance to get refocused on a mission to show that they're still capable of coming back to win not one, but two All-Irelands. They could be like the Kerry team that won the four-in-a-row and then came back to win three in a row."

On February 12, Tipp and Kilkenny meet under lights in Thurles for the National League opener and the visitors really need to make a statement. It will be intriguing to see what team is picked and even more so to see the new stamp Brian Cody will put on his side as the competition develops. Be under no illusion, a gradual reshuffle will take place -- during his 11-year tenure, the manager has moulded four different All-Ireland winning sides. Sometimes it was just to inject freshness into proceedings. Mostly, however, change ensued following a championship defeat.

And if the template is followed, last year's loss will herald the fifth team of his residency. Cody isn't the only manager who reacts to defeat, but traditionally he's had so much talent coming through that it's been easier for him to tinker with the side. After defeats early in his reign, marquee names like Denis

Byrne, Charlie Carter and Brian McEvoy all departed. And in his book Triumph and Troubles Carter recalls a training session months after they lost to Galway in the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final.

"Kilkenny had a different manager," he wrote. "Sure, his name was still Brian Cody but it was a different Brian Cody. Grim, direct, unsmiling . . . Serious faces were the order of the day. The prevailing mood got to me one night in the CBS gym. 'Do you know what's missing?' I said to Brian, 'A bit of fun'. He gave me a look that nearly cut me in two."

At the start of 2004, Wexford scalped them by two points in the Leinster semi-final and 10 positional changes were sprung next day out against Dublin.

They later lost to Cork in that year's All-Ireland final and, you guessed it, the 2005 championship opener against Offaly saw a further nine positional changes. When they lost an epic 2005 All-Ireland semi-final to Galway, Cha Fitzpatrick, Donnacha Cody, Michael Rice, Willie O'Dwyer, Peter Cleere and PJ Delaney all received an invite to join the top table and taste championship action in the first Leinster championship fixture of 2006.

After last September's fall, another raft of changes was expected; several players looked weary and there wasn't one under 21 player on the bench for that final. But there hasn't been the clear-out that many anticipated.

Gone are Canice Hickey, and Sean Cummins, who were around for a number of years. Damien Fogarty, son of selector Martin, is also out along with Michael Grace and reserve goalkeeper Richie O'Neill. Meanwhile, Derek Lyng (32) and James Ryall (30) announced their retirements.

Overall, the reaction to the September defeat has been measured and thus far the other established figures are all included in the extended panel, not that it means they will see much action over the coming months.

Still, there have been some noteworthy adjustments. Long-serving physical trainer Noel Richardson won't be part of the set-up this time around and neither will physio Robbie Lodge. It's expected that more responsibility for training the side will rest on the shoulders of selector Mick Dempsey. Their annual team holiday was shortened last November. Usually the squad would spend two weeks basking in the sun and the off-season. This time most returned after seven days.

Improving their performances under the dropping ball is their first task. For 10 years, they dominated aerial tussles against opponents but in the 2009 and 2010 finals, the Tipperary defence lorded these exchanges. In the '09 decider, the Kilkenny half-forwards gained little possession for 25 minutes of the second half. That will have to change. Upon their recent return to training, one player was asked to gauge the mood.

"I'll put it like this," he said, "when you have Tommy Walsh drilling balls at you in the puck around to see how many you drop, it sets the tone straight away. That's what we want."

They'll be short of the services of Henry Shefflin, their conductor in chief, until June and the same applies to centre-back John Tennyson. Doors, meanwhile, will open for others. Eoin Murphy or David Herity could get the chance to press PJ Ryan for the number one shirt during the league.

When they challenged O'Loughlin Gaels last weekend, it was JJ Delaney and not Noel Hickey who wore the number three jersey. Hickey operated in the corner, but Conor Fogarty, another son of Martin's, should get a chance to show his worth in that position.

Youngsters like Mark Bergin, Richie Doyle, Andy Kearns, Lester Ryan, Matt Ruth and Paul Murphy will be chomping at the bit after being drafted into the squad as Cody bids to inject some zest back into the set-up. Though they will be under intense scrutiny from now on, anyone who read the manager's autobiography will see that the rewards can be just as great.

"I always tell players that every career starts somewhere," Cody says. "It could be a Walsh Cup game in Freshford, Portlaoise, Birr or, in this case, Parnell Park. If a player does well, he gets another chance. The day you pull on a Kilkenny jersey for the first time is the day you get your opportunity. If you take it, then you decide your own future, not the manager or selectors, since a player who keeps performing well won't be dropped."

One former player says new faces are badly needed now. "It's not that we have become a poor team, we haven't, but you just couldn't keep up the relentless hunger every day you went out. We had a close escape with Tipp in the '09 final and got away with it, but you could tell they were ravenous for it and raw passion overwhelmed us last year.

"The new lads have a huge role to play; I'd say there are four places up for grabs. I'd personally feel it's a huge year for Richie Hogan and Paddy Hogan. They are young but experienced and I'd love to see them grasp their chance. Give the manager no choice but to pick them. Step up like Richie Power stepped up last year. When DJ Carey retired, there was a seamless transition, because Henry took over, but now we need other leaders."

The likes of Tyrell, Delaney and Walsh remain almost peerless in defensive positions while the under-rated Brian Hogan is likely to captain the side, but it's in the forwards that players need to start holding their hands up.

Two years ago, Richie Hogan scored 1-10 against Tipperary in the

League final but didn't push on. Should he reproduce the form he's capable of, it would be a massive boost to their hopes.

Observers reckon Cha Fitzpatrick could be used in the full-forward line as he'll struggle to gain a place at midfield with Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice around. Kilkenny sprung him at right corner-forward against O'Loughlin Gaels last Saturday (they won by 4-13 to 3-13) and he grabbed two goals.

In Kerry, Jack O'Connor has recently switched Darran O'Sullivan from the forwards to wing-back, maintaining it could give his former skipper a new lease of life. Illness and injury have combined to deny Fitzpatrick's talents the chances of progressing further. A similar change of scenery could be exactly what he requires.

Apart from the goalkeeping spot, there could be further auditions for new talent at either wing or corner-back. Centre-forward needs to be examined in the wake of Shefflin's absence and perhaps Power will be deployed there.

Aidan Fogarty's position might be under threat, though he is highly regarded by his manager, while Eddie Brennan will have huge motivation to get back to the lofty levels he has operated at for most of the past five years. With 26-65 to his name in championship scoring stakes, Brennan is too good to leave off once back in form.

Unlike in Cork, no marquee names have yet been jettisoned and sulphur doesn't hang in the air. Yet, when the buds of spring have unfurled, it's most likely that some established players will anxiously crave game time.

Right now it's shoulders to the wheel to see who starts against Tipp. In his book, Cody references this time of year with some reverence, writing: "The search for new goals, new challenges, and new achievements begins. It's a never-ending cycle, a never-ending pursuit."

It will soon start all over again. There may be new faces but their end goal will be just the same.

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