Hurling giants have become mere mortals

Kilkenny’s John Donnelly and Walter Walsh tussle with Tipperary’s Robert Byrne in the Allianz Hurling League clash in Semple Stadium. Walsh is always in the thick of the action. Picture: Oisin Keniry

They once were kings, these two houses both alike in dignity. They had heavy artillery and high explosive and machine guns and sniper rifles and famous generals and crack marksmen and plentiful reserves. 

They met every year or two and they made the earth shake. All-Ireland finals, National League deciders, Saturday night thrillers in Semple Stadium, ten-goal shootouts in Nowlan Park.

They gave us three copper-bottomed All Ireland classics and three thunderous National League deciders.

It was Old Testament and it was apocalyptic and in the 11 seasons from 2006 to 2016 only one other county lifted the MacCarthy Cup.

Kilkenny were the market leaders, Tipperary were their closest pursuers and the rest were out with the washing.

And then the world changed, and Galway and Limerick came along, and Kilkenny and Tipperary returned to the ranks of commoners. As they were always going to.

They’re no longer kings, these two houses both alike in mislaid dignity. Tipp have won two of their last 11 outings in league and championship. Kilkenny were last seen losing an irrelevant relegation play-off to Cork, after which they contrived to lose three full-backs.

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody in 2012.
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody in 2012.

Between them the pair would be hard pressed to beat Manchester United.

Above all they’ve lost their identity. Kilkenny used to embody skill and steel in equal measure. Tipperary if anything possessed more skill but not quite as much steel. No matter; both teams strove to be the best they could be and on that count succeeded, year after year.

Now? No unique selling points anymore. Kilkenny still wear stripes and are still managed by Brian Cody but that’s about it. Compare the aimlessness of their play with the power, purpose and coherence of Limerick’s: it is not a pretty contrast.

Tipperary are under the guidance of Liam Sheedy again and will in time become recognisable as a Sheedy team: the question is how long the process will take. Last year’s league final collision was an outlier. It portended nothing.

Will Tipp be any better any time soon? 

They don’t know themselves. Will Kilkenny be? Not until the injuries – the gravest of them being the loss of Eoin Murphy, a man who on a quiet day is worth three points a game to his county and on a busy day is worth six points - clear up, by which time it may be too late. Will they both emerge from their provinces? 

It is a good question that does not admit of an instant answer. Will even one of them emerge? You wouldn’t be tempted to put the house on it.

When the counties ran into one another at Nowlan Park five years ago they did so with concussive force, sharing ten goals and 34 points, with Colin Fennelly and Séamus Callanan accounting for three green flags apiece. 

When they ran into one another at Semple Stadium three months ago they did so armed with feather dusters, sharing zero goals and 35 points. It was only the fifth goalless encounter in the history of the fixture and it was perversely fitting that the winning score, far from being a 50m kill shot from Bubbles out on the wing or a piece of legerdemain by Richie Hogan, was a free converted by a goalkeeper.

Sherlock Holmes might have had match previewers in mind when he declared that it was a capital mistake to theorise without data. 

In a perfect world this piece would not have been finished until after the 9pm witching hour last night and the announcement of the XVs that will take on Dublin and Cork respectively. We got burned on that count by Tipp last year. Remember the post-deadline selection for the league final? 

Remember – who among the homes of Tipperary will recall it without a shudder? – the team chosen for the championship opener in the Gaelic Grounds?

All that one can ask of Sheedy is a sound and sober team chosen to do a job, the job being to bring home the points from Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Blooding youngsters for a brighter day does not come into it. Not that the task of deciding on the optimum team for tomorrow was ever going to be an easy one. 

Too many old hands and he’d be accused of excessive loyalty, too many fresh faces and he’d be accused of naivety. Finding the correct balance will take a few games. It may well take him the entire summer.

At least Sheedy has scoring forwards. A goals obsessive in John McGrath; proven white-flag merchants in John O’Dwyer, Jason Forde and the elder McGrath; and Séamus Callanan, a renowned professor of both disciplines. John Meyler didn’t require the Páirc Uí Rinn fiasco of March 3 to know that the Tipperary forwards cannot be left to their own devices in five yards of space apiece.

Sheedy’s attacking options belong to an order for which Cody must yearn. Granted, Colin Fennelly’s club form has been refulgent lately and Walter Walsh will never go missing when it comes to driving the bus, but these are two men who manage a good scoring return once in every three outings. 

Not a criticism; their virtues lie in ballwinning and selfless running. In 2019, however, Kilkenny require them to produce a scoring return once in every two outings. A decade ago Cody only required Martin Comerford to do what he was good at. The occasional day he shot the lights out constituted a bonus. All has changed.

The Noreside campaign stands or falls tonight. Even if Nowlan Park isn’t as claustrophobic as Parnell Park, where Kilkenny were horsed out of it 12 months ago, Dublin possess the advantage in physique. Any points the hosts drop here will scarcely be clawed back in Wexford Park or against Galway.

Granted, Mattie Kenny is in his first year as Dublin manager, and in the way of first-year managers (or first-year managers returning for their second spin) it will probably take him another season to put his stamp on the team. But Pat Gilroy having done a lot of the heavy lifting, Kenny isn’t setting out from a standing start. 

And he has the club scene well inspected and harrowed from his time with Cuala.

The 2018 provincial formbook shouldn’t be forgotten either. Dublin were the nearly team of the round robin, losing two of their matches – the first of them the opener in Parnell Park when Kilkenny mugged them on the finishing line - by two points and another by the minimum margin. 

Not that the formline of one championship transfers automatically to the following championship, of course, but the Dubs weren’t far away in 2018 and there’s no obvious reason why they should be far away this time around either. 

They’re 6/1 to win Leinster and they’re no forlorn hope.

One subtext to keep a weather eye out for over the coming weeks, by the by. At long last there’s an obvious successor to Cody. 

It may take years for this scenario to play out. Certainly the great man doesn’t have to win the All-Ireland this season. But he can’t afford to finish fourth in Leinster and he can’t afford to be left looking like yesterday’s man overseeing Stone Age hurling. 

And Henry Shefflin will manage Kilkenny some day.

Themselves and Tipp, then. Two houses in the same boat. 

The best hope for each may be located in finishing third in the group (in Kilkenny’s case with the absentees returning in dribs and drabs), fetching up in an All Ireland quarter-final and taking it from there.

Neither of them will lift the MacCarthy Cup. 

Neither of them looks provincial champions in waiting. But bumble and fumble their way into the last six and hey – then the summer can really begin.

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