Sunday 18 August 2019

Rising stars vs legends of hurling: Comparing Kilkenny’s Richie Leahy and Eddie Brennan

Kilkenny legend Eddie Brennan
Kilkenny legend Eddie Brennan

Tony Considine

It's fair to say that last month’s Leinster final defeat left Kilkenny in waters uncharted for a generation. Wexford’s victory means that for the first time in the Brian Cody era, the Cats have gone three years without a provincial crown.

Events since have proved the old adage that writing off Kilkenny when there’s any sort of breath left in them is beyond foolish. Yet there’s also little doubt that a sense of transition exists. The question is can the renowned Kilkenny conveyor belt of talent manufacture another team capable of the sort of dynasty that Cody presided over for the best part of two decades? And after 21 years at the helm, if Cody still believes he’s the man to lead it.

As part of a series in partnership with Bord Gáis Energy, official sponsor of the All-Ireland Senior and U-20 Hurling Championships, we’ll be comparing rising stars and legends of hurling. This week, we look at two of Kilkenny’s finest.

To put the level of Brian Cody’s achievements into context, think on this for a moment. When the James Stephens’ man took the helm, the Black and Amber had won an impressive 11 All-Irelands in the previous 36 years but hadn’t won one in five. After only two years building, Cody matched that tally of 11 in the space of 16 seasons between 2000 and 2015.

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Kilkenny manager Brian Cody and Eddie Brennan celebrate after the 2011 All-Ireland Final

It was an unprecedented period of dominance from a manager and a group of players destined to be forever ranked in the pantheon of greats. The easy thing to do would be to consider the names that the casual reader would recognise, a DJ Carey or a Henry Shefflin. Yet, that team was stuffed with legends. And Eddie Brennan was up there with the best of them.  

Having been overlooked at minor level, it was the U21 grade where Brennan made his inter-county bow in 1999. His goal proved decisive in an All-Ireland final win over Galway and after a single season with the 21s, he was promoted to the senior set-up as the Cody revolution began to gather pace.

With the collar bone that he’d broken in that U21 finally fully healed, Brennan laid down a marker with his first senior game when, in the absence of the aforementioned Carey, he put 2-3 on Tipperary at Semple Stadium.

“They have taken the field without DJ Carey but Kilkenny might well have discovered a new star in Eddie Brennan after his sensational debut in the black and amber jersey,” the Irish Independent match report opened.

“With a show like that, Eddie puts himself firmly in the frame for the coming months. It was a great effort from a lad having his first big game for the county,''  Cody added afterwards.

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Brennan lines out for Kilkenny in 2000

Another goal in the league against Derry wasn’t enough to nail down a regular place and Brennan was absent as Wexford ended Kilkenny’s league hopes. But it had been enough to secure a panel spot for the 2000 Championship where a debut goal was notched in a Leinster semi-final win over Dublin.

A first Leinster final appearance duly followed, as did a first Leinster medal, Brennan coming off the bench as a 63rd-minute sub for Henry Shefflin in a win over Offaly.

While the forward saw no game time in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat of Galway, the nine minutes he played in the final were long enough to find the net and twist the knife as Offaly were put to the sword once again. 5-15 to 1-14 was the final score. The Brian Cody era had arrived. And so had ‘Fast’ Eddie.

To go into detail on Brennan’s subsequent achievements would take a book rather than a column. A productive 2001, albeit mostly from the bench, had seen a second Leinster medal garnered and a surprising All-Ireland semi defeat to Galway in 2001 turned out to simply be a blip.

By 2002, he was a regular as the Cats pulled off a clean sweep of National League, Leinster and All-Ireland trophies with a first showpiece start for Brennan. The goals continued to flow in ‘03 with 1-3 in the league final, 1-1 in the Leinster final and 1-4 in the All-Ireland semi as the treble was repeated. His season’s form gave him enough credit to earn a first All-Star despite a quiet All-Ireland final.

After six trophies from six, 2004 gave the opposition the chance to draw breath. League defeats to Waterford and Galway derailed that campaign. A Leinster semi slipped away after Brennan’s early second-half goal seemed to have swung momentum Kilkenny’s way before Michael Jacobs’ famous three-pointer stole it for Wexford with the last puck of the game. A run through the qualifiers still led to a shot at an elusive three-in-a-row but a dominant Cork put paid to that notion.

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Celebrating Kilkenny’s second goal in the 2004 semi-final against Waterford

The recapture of the league and of Leinster in ‘05 was forgotten when 2-4 from Brennan in an All-Ireland semi wasn’t enough to stop Galway triumphing 5-18 to 4-18 in one of the games of the decade. With Cork then making it back-to-back titles, talk of the end of an era began. In fact, rather than an end, this was merely a beginning.

The next four years saw Brennan, and that iteration of Cody’s Kilkenny, peak. Brennan may not have featured regularly as the league was retained in 2006 but was back in the starting XV in time to collect another Leinster title. He remained there till September when Cork’s own dreams of three-in-a-row were dashed by a resurgent Cats.

Having added a second All-Star in ‘06, the following two seasons were Fast Eddie’s zenith. The reward for another Leinster final win over Wexford was an All-Ireland quarter against Galway. The sides faced off for the third year in a row, Kilkenny having exacted revenge for their three-point defeat of ‘05 with a win by the same margin in the ‘06 quarter.

A cursory glance at the final scoreline of 3-22 to 1-18 only tells part of the story. As befitting a rivalry that saw only the puck of a sliotar between the teams in both of the previous contests, the 60-minute mark saw the sides deadlocked at 1-18 apiece. But this was to be Brennan’s day.

62 minutes - green flag, 63 minutes - white flag. 66 minutes - green flag and Galway were toast. Points from Richie Power, Henry Sheflin and Derek Lyng completed the rout but the headlines read “Fast Eddie just too quick on the draw”.

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Brennan in action against Limerick in the 2007 All-Ireland final

Surprisingly kept scoreless in the semi win over Wexford, the final saw Brennan at his best again. His ninth minute goal set the tone and his addition of five points to a total of 2-19 against Limerick’s 1-15 was enough to see him awarded man of the match. Unsurprisingly a third All-Star followed.

He was at it once more in 2008, 2-2 against Wexford in the Leinster final bettered by his 2-4 in the sport’s showpiece. Kilkenny had made it three on the bounce, Waterford the latest victims. Another man of the match performance meant a fourth and final All-Star was guaranteed.

The All-Stars may have dried up at that stage but the medals didn’t. Another clean sweep of Dr Croke, Bob O’Keefe and Liam MacCarthy in 2009 with 0-3 in the final saw the Cats secure a historic four-in-a-row.

And even when Tipp finally put a halt to the drive for five in 2010, Brennan wasn’t finished yet. Used sparingly in Leinster in 2011, he bounced back from having to settle for an 11th Leinster medal as an unused substitute. A point from the bench in the All-Ireland semi saw him grab a starting place in the half-forward line for the final. His assist for Richie Hogan’s goal was crucial in putting the game beyond Tipp.

It was to be Brennan’s last appearance in the black and amber. After eight Celtic Crosses, 11 Leinsters, five National Leagues, four All-Stars and two All-Ireland final man of the match awards, the 33-year-old called it a day.

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Brennan at the end of the 2011 semi-final against Waterford

Ever modest, Brennan was genuinely touched by the well-deserved reaction to his retirement, saying: "The success that we've had and the run we've been on has been unbelievable, outrageous.

"A lot of it has been down to luck and there are lads who I would consider a cut above me that have gone and deserved more praise than me. I've been inundated with best wishes but I'm surprised by the overwhelming reaction."

It was always going to take more than Brennan’s departure to put a halt to Kilkenny’s gallop and further All-Ireland’s were added in 2012, 2014 and 2015. But with further key players such as Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh and Richie Power amongst others also retiring since, there was only so long that replacements ready-made to challenge for top honours could keep being integrated.

Yet, while three years without even a Leinster title may seem an eternity to a county where winning is in the blood, there are signs of recovery as highlighted by the recent stunning quarter-final win over Cork.

The 2016 intermediate All-Ireland final saw Richie Leahy add a national title to his Leinster minor and U21 medals. Promotion to the senior panel for the 2017 season saw a debut from the bench against Waterford followed up with scoring starts against Clare (0-1) and Cork (0-3).

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Richie Leahy in the 2018 All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick

Championship ‘17 was a forgettable one for the Cats with Wexford ending their provincial interest early. Waterford were their opposition in the qualifiers and that game saw Leahy sprung from the bench on 62 minutes. Although his presence couldn’t prevent the Déise eventually prevailing after extra-time, the two points he added with the game in the balance showed the 20-year-old didn’t look out of place at senior level.

Better followed last year with regular starts in the league. 0-3 including a stoppage-time winner against Tipperary caught the eye and Leahy was just as impressive notching the same score against Wexford.

The young Rower-Inistioge club-man was also prominent against the latter opposition in the league semi, contributing two points from midfield in a TJ Reid inspired 1-27 to 2-15 victory.

The final against Tipp emphasised how much of transition period this is. Six of the 15 had no Championship appearances and Leahy’s Waterford cameo made him the ninth most experienced starter. That lack of experience proved irrelevant and although Leahy was withdrawn 48 minutes in, a 2-23 to 2-17 scoreline saw him bag a first senior medal.

But it’s Championships rather than leagues that quicken the blood in Kilkenny. A first Leinster final appearance for Leahy may have led to an immediate second after the first clash with Galway was drawn but the replay defeat meant a maiden Leinster medal would have to wait. A two-point loss to eventual champs Limerick despite a four-point haul from the bench meant the same applied for an All-Ireland.

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Richie Leahy

While Leahy has so far played deeper than Brennan traditionally did, an opportunistic goal in this season’s league opening win against Cork from the half-forward line was in the Fast Eddie mould. But despite a career-best 0-7 against Limerick, that loss, coupled with another to Wexford ended the Cats’ league defence.

More regular Championship starts followed in a positive run to this year’s Leinster final and although that ultimately ended in defeat to Wexford, it was a game in the balance till the death.

Given little chance against Cork, Leahy was on the mark as the Cats prevailed. Underdogs again next weekend against Limerick, both he and his county can’t be ruled out of making a further impression on this Championship.

While there’s no doubting that Brian Cody is the finished article, no one is yet claiming that about Leahy, least of all the hurler himself. At 22 years of age, his inter-county career will surely still have a road to run if and when Cody finally decides to step away.

But while Henry Shefflin’s All-Ireland club success as manager of Ballyhale Shamrocks has led to a little speculation that he may be the man to eventually succeed Cody, here’s something else to mull on.

On the same day that Kilkenny succumbed to Wexford, a certain county legend was leading his Laois team to Joe McDonagh glory. Amazingly, the story didn’t end there with Dublin’s All-Ireland hopes since ended in the shock of the season. Even their eventual quarter-final defeat at the hands of Tipp was competitive and the O’Moore men exited with heads held high

The same manager was also in charge of the Kilkenny U21 side that rising star Leahy won his Leinster title with. It begs the question if a cheeky punt on Eddie Brennan having a future role in moulding Richie Leahy might be worthwhile?

Don’t forget to catch up on this series’ previous comparisons of Waterford’s Shane Bennett and John Mullane, Galway’s Conor Whelan and Joe Cooney, and Dublin's Paddy Smyth and Des ‘Snitchy’ Ferguson.

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