Ravenous and relentless, Cody's Kilkenny in no mood to budge
In hurling's hierarchy, the more things change, the more they stay the same, writes Dermot Crowe
OVER the ten years since Kilkenny won the 2002 All-Ireland, blithely described by John Power as "another bale on the trailer," any semblance of a hurling revolution has been ruthlessly suppressed. Even by then the empires were striking back as tradition demanded and none with the same devastation as Kilkenny. Ten years on, they are still champions, having, as then, relieved Tipperary of the title. A few of the personalities are still there -- Brian Cody, Noel Hickey and Henry Shefflin -- and the sentiment is there too like a lasting oath.
A few days after defeating Clare in the 2002 final, Brian Cody was asked about Kilkenny's reaction to their success. "Essentially, I would say we had tasted defeat. We know what it's like to lose up there. In lots of ways it's harder to win with decency than it is to lose with decency because you can get carried away easily, you can think you're all sorts of things, and it's a dangerous thing to let yourself become."
This might help explain why a county that has won an additional six All-Irelands since then would travel to Galway two weeks ago for a Walsh Cup final and finish the match with 13 of last year's All-Ireland team. Bearing in mind Eddie Brennan had retired and Henry Shefflin was injured, that reminds others that whatever happens to Kilkenny this year, they will not be getting carried away. Galway had shown promise in qualifying but early in the match Kilkenny blew them away.
At various stages Kilkenny have responded similarly to perceived threats. Galway have taken some ferocious abuse -- Thurles in 2004 for example -- when Kilkenny were intent on sending out a message that they were not ready to step aside and make room for a successor. Offaly, close to winning a Leinster title in 2004, took a murderous hiding a year later, losing by 31 points. Waterford were brutalised in 2008. Even the nobility wasn't spared. Cork suffered a severe hiding in the league while weakened by internal squabbling.
Six All-Irelands since that win in 2002 is, to place it in context, as many as Dublin and Wexford have won since records began. It is two more than Galway and Offaly, twice Clare's haul and three times that of Waterford. Last September, the All-Ireland contained the same two teams three years in a row for the first time ever. In a modern and more democratic age where old oligarchies are falling or have already perished, that is somewhat startling. The story of any championship however, even in these times when Kilkenny rule so compellingly, is more than the final judgement day in September.
It is hopefully not playing Pollyanna to suggest that Dublin's league success was a serious achievement and a mark of genuine progress, even against a Kilkenny team softened by injury in the final. Tipp went into reverse last year but they still scored seven goals in the Munster final and reached another All-Ireland endgame. Waterford still had a kick in them if not enough to win a championship. Clare saw the difficult transition from underage success to senior graduation manifested in a garishly naïve defence. But they had an exciting minor team that was easy on the eye on the back of other recent Banner youngsters to distinguish themselves on the national stage.
Galway bombed and yet their minors and under 21s cannot be ignored and the latter will form the next rebuilding stage.
Limerick emptied the madhouse and played hurling with a joy that had been absent for too long, even if the results in the championship had a too common theme of near-miss. They could do nothing about the decision of the boardroom people to embark on a policy of eugenics with a league restructure that reduced the number of teams in the top division, thereby denying Limerick their rightful promotion. The hurling played by the county's under 21s was a delight and the Munster final with Cork rose to majestic levels. Na Piarsaigh came out of Munster with a scatter of young players and some of those are now breaking into the county side.
In Munster, the last three minor titles have been won by Clare and Waterford and the kind of hurling teams emanating from Clare, notably the 2009 under 21s and last year's minors, have a quality of technique that bodes well for the future and reflects positively on those charged with coaching them through the various development squads. In the short term, however, the field of serious contenders remains small. Kilkenny are still, undeniably, the team to beat.
"I think Tipp and Kilkenny was everyone's obvious choice to reach the All-Ireland final at the start of last year but I think for Tipp and Kilkenny to meet in a fourth final would be asking a lot," says Benny Dunne, who retired after last season. "I do think there are (other) genuine contenders. I strongly feel that Dublin are going to be there or thereabouts in 2012. I think the strides they made last year in particular were impressive and they beat us well in the league, and Kilkenny in a National League final. And then they nearly turned us over in an All-Ireland semi-final, I think we were very lucky to come out and beat them. I'd put Galway next to them and I can't see a winner coming from outside those four."
Galway's runaway win in the under 21 final last year and the arrival of the accompanying management team in charge of the seniors has created further hope of a western resurgence. "They have freshened up the panel and I still think Joe Canning is Joe Canning -- he is a top-class player. A lot will depend on his fitness," says Dunne.
He describes Tipperary as being at a crossroads, having won an All-Ireland and then lost it, and says the absence of Lar Corbett is not being dwelt upon. "I think they have moved on. They are over that bump. Run through the team. They still look to be very good on paper, there are a few good players being tried on Sunday, and I think they will push Kilkenny all the way."
The lowly satisfaction rating among the rest of the chasing field is borne out by the high level of management changes over the winter. Kilkenny, with Cody facing into his 14th season, is an oasis of calm and stability in comparison.
John Fenton was on the hurling development committee which recently published its plan to strengthen the game in weaker areas. He compares Kilkenny to the Kerry football team of the 1970s and '80s, at times virtually untouchable. But Tipperary's win in 2010 and the inevitable wear and tear of the key personnel has reduced some of that fear value. "They can't rule forever," says Fenton, and the loss of players like Cha Fitzpatrick, John Dalton, Eddie Brennan and Michael Kavanagh will impact negatively on the squad and their training and preparations. Brennan had a major role to play in last year's All-Ireland. Opponents will be relieved to see the back of him.
It is one of the GAA's great system and imagination failures that hurling should remain such an exotic pursuit in most of the country. Paudie Butler's missionary work has helped change that and at least given it a more extensive presence, but the suspicious regard for hurling in many football areas is still commonplace. Hurling, too, has been guilty of elitism and a certain snobbery and introspection. On both sides there has been evidence of a backwater mentality.
With no county outside of Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary having won an All-Ireland senior title since 1998, the evidence that the power base has shifted back to a more traditional setting is overwhelming. Offaly and Wexford have slumped, and having been overtaken by Dublin at underage through the last decade, that has now followed, inevitably, at senior grade.
Their condition has been grave enough to lead to the radical overhaul of the Leinster championship to include Galway and Antrim; there was no sign of an imminent reversal of the fortunes of Wexford and Offaly who gave so much to hurling in the 1990s.
Cork are hardly down-and-outs but they are also struggling to rediscover their former potency. In the last ten years they have failed to win an All-Ireland minor or under 21 title. Kilkenny have won four of each, and Galway seven between the two grades. Having retired last year, Ronan Curran says he expected Kilkenny to win the 2011 All-Ireland from the outset -- leaving aside his own ambitions with Cork.
"I just think Kilkenny are a better team than Tipperary, who relied too much on Lar (Corbett) last year. Tipp have a very solid team but they are able to get goals and on their day they are up there with the best. If you can keep them from scoring goals, they can look ordinary enough. But they can score goals, they have lots of movement and you need goals to beat Kilkenny."
Curran sees Dublin as being on the right track and All-Ireland potential but doesn't forecast it this year or next, but somewhere in the next five. That may exceed the patience of Anthony Daly. But, given the monochrome times hurling has often lived through, to be discussing it at all is a small blessing.
Sunday Indo Sport