Friday 23 March 2018

Supreme Cats living in world of their own

Vincent Hogan reflects on the rise and rise of Cody's glorious empire

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Kilkenny's shadow is forbiddingly long as the decade closes, yet little green shoots of uprising now tug at our attention. Seven All-Irelands in 10 years isn't just an expression of dominance; it's a virtual declaration of ownership.

No team has bossed the game like this before. They changed how it is played and, maybe more pertinently, how it is planned. Great hurling has always thrived on spiritual abandon, but great teams reach that state only after a long, exhaustive journey.

If Cork brought tactical refinement to the noughties with their oft-derided short puck-outs and emphasis on possession retention, Kilkenny's response was -- essentially -- to see their 10 and raise it 20.

Midway through the decade, Kilkenny-Cork was -- nationally -- the only show in town. It had become an old-fashioned shoot-out. They'd met in the last final of the '90s, Cork prevailing by a hair's breadth. But then the cold hand of acrimony reached into Rebel hurling lives and, by the time they'd won that civil war with their County Board, Brian Cody's Kilkenny had begun their stockpiling.

The counties would meet in three of the next four All-Ireland finals and it's funny to recall now how their '04 clash -- won 0-17 to 0-9 by Cork -- was widely expected to preface a lean spell for the Cats. When, 11 months later, Galway mined an improbable 5-18 against Kilkenny in a coruscating semi-final, that expectation was all but spray-painted across the sky.


Cork beat Galway in that year's final and looked to have patented a game that only Waterford in the south had the ability to decode.

But that's pretty much when Cody got down to business. In his autobiography, he writes of arriving home from that semi-final defeat and being approached in the car-park of the Newpark Hotel by three players, beseeching him not to countenance any thoughts of stepping down.

The general media reaction had been dismissive of Kilkenny's future prospects and Cody recalls hearing Donal O'Grady join that chorus in an interview on 'Today FM'. He writes : "I thought to myself, 'Really Donal? Where's the evidence that we have slipped so badly?' It just wasn't there.

"The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to come back stronger than ever. Talk of Kilkenny being a finished force caught in a time warp made me all the more determined to get things back on track. I swore that, by Christ, we'd prove Kilkenny weren't gone. And if people think we are, we'll bloody show them. And quite soon too!

"If I had any doubts about continuing, the suggestions that we were beaten dockets about to be dumped in the bin helped me make up my mind to carry on."

Donal Og Cusack admits in his own autobiography that, with a three-in-a-row looming for Cork in '06, they had the opportunity to end Cody's stewardship of Kilkenny. Their failure to do that haunts Cork to this day.

"We have always felt that we could have finished Cody off in 2006 if we had beaten them in the All-Ireland final and completed a three-in-a-row of titles," writes Cusack. "That would have hurt Kilkenny deeply and Cody would have been under pressure to go.

"Instead we created a monster."

Kilkenny, of course, have not lost a championship game since that defeat to Galway on August 21, 2005. They've had four unblemished years since. The beaten dockets. The old stagers caught in a time warp. The busted flush.

The greatest team any of us have seen.

Their 2008 All-Ireland final obliteration of Waterford will go down in history as probably the closest to perfection any side has come in the long history of the old game. It bore no smudges, no wrinkles. Just a glorious 70-minute expression of absolute union.

When they then continued in that vein through the spring storms of this year's National League, whipping Tipperary by 17 points and Cork by 27, the worry was that Kilkenny had bolted so far clear of the field, the race no longer had a pulse. But, somehow, hurling was saving the best 'til last.

Three games, especially, would adorn the year and Kilkenny featured in each one. The National League final, the first Leinster semi-final and, of course, the All-Ireland final. Three epic battles -- two against Tipp, one against Galway -- that invigorated the senses like cold water on a fevered brow.

Actually, Kilkenny had to work for everything they got in the '09 championship, Dublin running them to six points in the Leinster final, Waterford running them to five in the All-Ireland semi.

So, while the veneer of greatness is intact, the aura of invincibility has gone. Kilkenny will pursue an unprecedented five-in-a-row next season with the likes of Tipp and Galway energised by a desire to have another crack at them. And Cork? Who knows? There's high mileage on a lot of clocks now, though the prospect of losing to Tipp for a fourth consecutive summer might just trigger something tumultuous. Dublin are coming. Waterford haven't gone away. Wexford and Offaly are building long-term.

But the decade ends with a worrying copycat tendency. Cork's first strike of '02 was motivated by fundamental grievances about player welfare. The recent stand-offs in Clare and Limerick didn't have anything like the same philosophical basis. They smacked of almost gratuitous player-power.

That's the worry as this decade closes. The nuclear option of strike becoming an easy reflex.

Don't worry about Kilkenny. They will, in time, be seen as a force of good for the game. The team that raised the bar for others and showed us, like no one had ever done before, the true breadth of hurling's possibilities. We ought to enjoy them while we can.

It's Kilkenny's world. The rest of us just live in it.

Irish Independent

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