Hurling's top influencers as top counties bid for glory in final Championship of decade

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody

After the same county lifted the MacCarthy Cup on seven occasions in the noughties, the decade that followed was always going to be more democratic. Thus it transpired, with no fewer than five different teams crowned All Ireland champions since 2013.

Although Kilkenny will finish the decade as the market leaders (no change there), and Tipperary have been their closest pursuers throughout, Clare and Limerick provided a much needed breath of fresh air, while Galway in 2017 boldly went where no bunch in maroon had gone since 1988.

But whereas a Galway triumph was always going to happen sooner or later, Clare and Limerick each caused a delightful surprise by going the distance with young teams whose best was supposedly a couple of years down the line.

A nation rejoiced.

Elsewhere Cork have never been too far away but the post-2005 famine continues; Waterford reinvented themselves under Derek McGrath; Dublin won a first Leinster title in half a century and Wexford have become sticky opponents again but Offaly’s plunge continued.

Yet over and above the winners and losers, who have been the men – on the field and off - who made this hurling decade what it is? Who have helped to shape it and incite debate? Who have set the ideological battle lines that came into being?

Who, in short, have mattered most? With the final championship of the decade under way, here’s our choice of the major influencers:

Davy Fitzgerald and Paul Kinnerk

Clare’s Conor Cooney soars for possession watched by Davy Fitzgerald and Paul Kinnerk. Picture: Diarmuid Greene
Clare’s Conor Cooney soars for possession watched by Davy Fitzgerald and Paul Kinnerk. Picture: Diarmuid Greene

Two minutes into the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final Clare fired the shot heard around the hurling world. John Conlon won a free on the 65-metre line on the Cusack Stand side of Croke Park.

Instead of stepping up and banging it over the bar, Colin Ryan waited till he saw Pat Donnellan, the man in the number six jersey, charging up the far wing in acres of space. Ryan pinged the sliotar across the field to where Donnellan, unmolested by anyone from Limerick, gathered it outside the 20-metre line and tapped it over the bar.

Clare’s second point would emanate from Pat O’Connor, their number seven, similarly bursting out of defence and finding the range from 50 metres.

This was Harry Potter hurling for the Harry Potter generation. A game not where the managers moved the chess pieces, as they’d done since time immemorial, but where the chess pieces moved themselves.

The ancient verities — hooking, blocking, tackling, ballwinning — still obtained, as Clare would discover in the years that followed, but under Davy Fitz and Paul Kinnerk the lines on the grid were done away with and the map of the field redrawn. The only frontiers were inherited mental frontiers.

On moving to Wexford the former continued to set agendas — every match his adopted county have played, they’ve played on Davy’s terms — and in passing turned around his personal dynamic with Brian Cody, a feat that has doubtless given him immense personal satisfaction.

Without Kinnerk, meanwhile, there would have been no Clare 2013 and no Limerick 2018.

Colonising space, one of the kernels of success in team sports, involves closing avenues in one’s own half of the field and opening them in the opposition’s half.

At their best, Limerick in attack will isolate and feed Aaron Gillane or create an overlap for a man steaming in on the far post, while back the field their tackling emphasises the importance of maintaining the feet in a central position. Kinnerk’s credo is built on his definition of hurling as a game of possessions and turnovers: he calculates that there are 200 opportunities to tackle an opponent in every match. Limerick fell down on that score last Sunday. A return to basics beckons.

Michael Fennelly

Kilkenny’s Michael Fennelly charges through the Tipp defence to fire a goal past Brendan Cummins. Picture: Brian Lawless
Kilkenny’s Michael Fennelly charges through the Tipp defence to fire a goal past Brendan Cummins. Picture: Brian Lawless

In Patrick O’Brian’s naval stories Jack Aubrey, one of the two principals, is fond of quoting a piece of advice given to him as a cadet by Admiral Nelson.

Always go straight for the enemy.

Fennelly went straight for the enemy when motoring through the heart of the Tipperary defence to sweep home the goal that blew open the 2011 All-Ireland final and repeated the dose — twice — in the National League showdown with the same opponents two years later.

The módh díreach became his stock in trade. Not his only trick, though, given that of Kilkenny’s five goals in the 2014 All-Ireland two-parter he provided the assist for no fewer than four: the thinking man’s wrecking ball.

If Richie Hogan and TJ Reid provided the nous on that outfit, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of brute force blended with subtlety.

Fennelly landed the clinching point in the 2015 decider when he got blocked down off his right but was sufficiently quick to retrieve the loose ball and slap it between the posts off his left.

A year later in the semi-final replay at Semple Stadium he was going straight for the Waterford defence when that simultaneously mighty and delicate frame gave out.

Whatever chance Kilkenny had against Tipperary three weeks later vanished in that moment. On the club scene Ballyhale Shamrocks had the good sense to install him as a granite obelisk in the centre of their defence and invite opponents to go around him. Two All-Ireland triumphs followed.

For three decades, Frank Cummins featured as the midfield enforcer on any Greatest All Time Kilkenny XV, no questions asked. No longer.

Tadhg De Búrca

Tadhg de Búrca was exceptional, acting as lightning rod for Waterford’s controversial sweeper system under Derek McGrath. Picture: Harry Murphy
Tadhg de Búrca was exceptional, acting as lightning rod for Waterford’s controversial sweeper system under Derek McGrath. Picture: Harry Murphy

Derek McGrath could as easily have been the choice but De Búrca gets the nod as the man who bore the burden of helping enact McGrath’s grand plan — and by extension of being the man who became the lightning rod for a long-running, animated, and ultimately wearying argument about systems, sweepers, and spare men.

Only an exceptional individual could have carried out the task. De Búrca was ideal, being possessed of the tenacity to mark and the intelligence to sweep.

This was a role far more sophisticated than generally realised and one with four or five discrete shadings.

Spare man screening a dangerous full-forward such as Joe Canning or Seamus Callanan; conventional wing-back, as he was in 2014; wing-back on a wing-forward who either wasn’t much of a scorer or was guaranteed to go deep; sweeper with responsibility for tracking an identified enemy forward inside the 50-metre line, with other Waterford players detailed to pick yer man up further out; and a final iteration so subtle and complex you’d need an MA in Hurling Studies to understand it.

Naturally Waterford’s deployment of De Búrca was anathema to folk who prefer not to have to think too deeply about hurling. (Let every man win his own ball, let the ball do the work, blah blah.)

To hold that Waterford “would never win an All-Ireland with a sweeper” missed the point in heroic fashion. McGrath didn’t play with an extra defender in order to win an All-Ireland, he did so in order to save his young charges from drowning.

For hurling to develop, as opposed to remaining pickled in the strategy-free aspic that saw little or nothing change between the 1950s and the emergence of the Cork team of 2004-05, it needs heretics, iconoclasts, and meddlers.

Hurling demands the Davys and the Dereks. They make us realise the importance of peering around corners and risking venturing down one-way streets. It wasn’t you, lads — it was us.

Brian Cody

Brian Cody in 2015
Brian Cody in 2015

From a diamond-encrusted golden age to a mere silver age.

No longer bestrides the sport like a colossus but still has to make the list, not least because four All-Ireland titles render him the most successful manager of the decade.

Some foolish people liked to declaim that anyone could have won all those All-Irelands with Kilkenny in the noughties, such was the depth of talent Cody had at his disposal; the same comment cannot be uttered about their more recent wins, with the emphatic nature of the defeat to Tipperary in 2016 making the victories of the previous two seasons glow more brightly.

Having done the four in a row because they had the best team, Kilkenny won in 2014-15 because they had the best panel. Yet those players still had to be kept sweet and kept motivated. Cody ensured they were.

Although coping with teams who deploy a spare defender remains an issue, last year’s National League triumph — his fourth of the decade in the competition — demonstrated that his flame had not dimmed.

When Kilkenny won four All-Irelands in the 1970s it was regarded as a golden era for the county. They’ve repeated the feat in this decade and it’s almost an afterthought. Although the greatest days are behind him, Cody remains Cody.

Eamon O’Shea

Eamon O’Shea took influence from everything from tennis books to Arsene Wenger’s early days at Arsenal. Brendan Moran
Eamon O’Shea took influence from everything from tennis books to Arsene Wenger’s early days at Arsenal. Brendan Moran

The forwards whisperer. Authored two All-Ireland-winning forward lines, with his name on the cover of the book in 2010 and in the credits in 2016.

Also took two players who were in danger of losing their way and turned them into superstars, while even his near-misses had the echo of glory about them. Imagine hitting 1-28 in an All Ireland final and not winning. Janey.

An economist by nurture, a romantic by nature, O’Shea went so far as to read tennis books in order to help the Tipperary forwards ruminate upon the sound of the sliotar being struck. Now that’s what you call lateral thinking.

One of the fruits of his labours was Lar Corbett’s second goal in the 2010 final. When Noel McGrath fielded Gearoid Ryan’s delivery, wheeled around and gave the handpass he didn’t know that Corbett was sprinting into space to receive — but he knew that somebody would be.

It was the kind of goal that had never before been scored in an All-Ireland final and may never be again.

Nor was the good that O’Shea did interred with his bones. He was gone by 2016 but the 2-29 Tipperary put up against Kilkenny could not have happened without him. Ascribe it to the joys of muscle memory.

O’Shea reads novels, listens to Tom Waits and was blown away by the intellectual approach of his fellow economist Arsene Wenger in his opening phase at Arsenal. Aithníonn ciaróg etc. Judging by Tipperary’s form to date this summer the story has not yet reached its conclusion.

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