'Whatever calls have to be made for the best interests of the team will be done'
Cody warns he won't shy away from tough decisions as he bids to get Kilkenny back to former glories
THE old hurling year may be ebbing gently into the history books, but already there's stirring in the undergrowth as counties begin the assessment process ahead of the relaunch in January.
Looking ahead always generates big interest among the hurling fraternity, but there's an added item of intrigue on the 2014 agenda, centring on the crucial question: just where do Kilkenny stand?
Were this year's championship woes a mere blip on the black and amber landscape or a sign of something more serious? Could Kilkenny be heading for a life among the pack, rather than leading the way as they have done for most of the new Millennium?
Brian Cody leans back in his chair in the foyer of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Shanghai and contemplates a question which he would have anticipated. After all, Kilkenny 2013 weren't anywhere nearly as good as in previous years, certainly not after winning the Allianz League title in early May.
So are Kilkenny heading into a transition phase, Brian?
"It depends on what transition means. If we were to play at the level we played this year, we'd struggle – there's no doubt about that. The challenge for us is to try and step up again. That's what we'll be trying to do.
"Everyone knows that a lot of our players have been playing for a very long time. There's a huge amount of opposition out there now. A lot of talk all along had been about how so few teams could win the All-Ireland. That's certainly not the case now. I never thought it was like that anyhow."
When Kilkenny beat Tipperary in a high-tempo league final, it was generally assumed that it was business as usual, but instead their season veered wildly off track.
Surrendering the Leinster title to Dublin was followed by a bounce-back of sorts when Kilkenny beat Tipperary and Waterford in the qualifiers, before their season ended in the All-Ireland quarter-finals when they lost to Cork.
While other counties – notably Clare, Dublin, Cork and Limerick – made clear gains this year, Kilkenny lost ground.
Whether it was a temporary setback remains to be seen but as Cody and Kilkenny reboot their system, they will do so from a position of total honesty about the reality of this year.
"We weren't in the running – we were way down the pack as regards the championship. We didn't even play in Croke Park. We just weren't near the level we had to be to have any chance of winning a championship. We all accept that," said Cody.
While few detected any signs of weakness in Kilkenny when they beat Tipperary in the league final, Cody had concerns about how the season had gone up to then. Winning the league masked the reality that Kilkenny's form had been patchy earlier on.
"We were up and down in the league. It was strange that we won it really because we lost our first two games. At that stage, we were facing potential relegation. We fought back well but we still weren't playing particularly well – we were chasing games at times," said Cody.
Conceding four goals against Offaly in the Leinster quarter-final flashed out a real sign that something wasn't quite right with Kilkenny, whose unease was later exposed by Dublin in the drawn and replayed semi-final.
"We conceded four goals against Offaly – that's not something that normally lends itself to winning matches. We got over that one, but we weren't good against Dublin in the drawn game or replay. That was how our year was going – we were struggling," said Cody.
And so it went. Impressive against Tipperary, edgy against Waterford and finally seen off by Cork, Kilkenny just weren't themselves. They watched from the background as a new force emerged in the form of a young Clare team whose pace and energy eventually burned off all opposition.
Now the question is being asked if Clare's fresh approach will establish a different texture in the game over the coming seasons.
"Different styles of play can emerge. Traditionally, everyone has a particular style of play to an extent. Different people come in and tweak things but at the end of the day, hurling is hurling," said Cody.
He was in no way surprised by Clare's rapid progress this year, or indeed the manner in which Dublin and Limerick ended lengthy barren spells in the provincial championships.
"Some counties are always written up as potential favourites – that's the way it works. The potential for teams to come through has been there for a good few years. Look at Clare and how their U-21s did in recent years. They were bound to come through at senior level. It was obvious from early in the league that Davy Fitz had put his faith in these lads and they repaid it.," he said.
"Cork had shown a lot of potential the previous year, Limerick too and Dublin. I've been talking about Dublin for a long time. They have been a serious force for a good few years now. The reality is that in any given year anybody can beat anybody."
While Kilkenny will come under intense scrutiny from early in the new season, Cody believes that it's more familiar territory than is generally thought.
"We've had other setbacks along the way over the years. We were beaten in 2004 and '05 and again in 2010. Back in '01, we were annihilated in the All-Ireland semi-final so it's not like we haven't experienced these things. It still doesn't change anything – the challenge is everything and always will be," he said.
Cody will be launching it in the company of two new selectors, James McGarry and Derek Lyng, additions which he believes will bring serious added value.
"Martin (Fogarty) was stepping down. We thought about it long and hard and the two lads were the first choices. Both have a lot to offer. They have huge playing experience, huge interest in the game and huge knowledge too," he said.
One of their first tasks will be to assist Cody to settle on the 2014 panel, a process which, following the dip in form this year, will attract more interest than in recent seasons.
It will involve making some hard calls, but that's not something that bothers Cody as he has frequently shown in the past. It's all about Team Kilkenny and its requirements.
"Obviously, we have to look at every aspect of it. As for hard calls, what you're doing is deciding on whether a player is picked or not. It's part and parcel of management and if you can't face up to that or can't adapt, then there's no point being there.
"Whatever calls have to be made for the best interests of the team will be done. If we shy away from that, we are doing everybody a disservice," he said.
Cody has never shirked making the hard choices in any of his previous 15 seasons in charge, so that certainly won't be an issue when he sits down with his two selectors to reshape the scene for Kilkenny's new campaign, starting against Westmeath or DIT in the Walsh Cup on January 19.
"We're facing a big challenge next year but that's what everybody is in the game for," said Cody.