Traditions are an intriguing twitch of the curtain, a means of discovering what people reveal when relaxed. The last decade witnessed a gravitation of Kilkenny hurlers past and present, Senior County Final over, towards a particular public house on John Street. The great and the good congregate, with the atmosphere typically way above the bar service.
I have a strong memory of being in there after the 2015 Senior Final. There is always a touch of The Sopranos on those occasions, an atmosphere of sharp intimacies. Highly decorated individuals, including some lads who had played in that decider, were arrayed around the front bar.
A Tipperary friend was with me. Having scanned the room, cricked with interest, Enda turned back round with cold wonder on his face. Cold summary proved unforgettable: “There must be 120 All Ireland medals and more walking around in here…”
Evening ribboned into night, beer mats moistened, tongues loosened. ‘It’s all about Cody now,’ some of the veterans could be heard to say. ‘Does anyone realise the talent he had? Does anyone think he could have done it on his own?’
No malice or whatever. Just the truth that competitiveness, unlike hair, never recedes. Just that retirement sluices a certain temperament into fresh channels. Without this temperament, without a gathering of like kinds, nothing whatsoever would have been won.
The muttering from former charges arose because they knew a tilt had taken place. Back in late 2015, Galway beaten in the All Ireland Final, Brian Cody stood unquestionably primus inter pares. An 11th Senior All Ireland had been harvested on his managerial watch. He was the only constant. No 21st century player has 11 medals.
For a growing amount of Kilkenny natives, the last three seasons comprise a reverse tilt. The present remakes not the past, an impossible task, but feelings about the past. With sport, the present constantly adjusts our assessment of past achievements.
Courage is the only sure source of momentum. If nothing else, Brian Cody never lacks for courage. Plenty observers in the county deem him a foolish man not to have retired in 2015. Ger Loughnane offered the same advice from an external perspective.
Had he departed at that juncture, Cody would have been italicised as the greatest ever supremo. Instead he opted to retest himself at the helm of lesser talent. Present negotiations reset prior consensus, however weighty that consensus in its day. For some observers, there is a moral. The longer Cody remains manager without landing a 12th Senior title, the more the x-factor between 2000 and 2015 becomes playing talent rather than sideline nous.
Yes, this sort of binary nonsense is far too crude. Yes, the matter is way more complicated. But people love to be colourful with black and white opinions, love their pops at authority figures. For various reasons, Brian Cody remains admired more than adored by his public. Irrationally or not ― and I find the sentiment irrational ― the last three seasons are advanced in certain quarters as an audit on the whole of Cody’s 20 season term. The jury is being called back in.
Tomorrow, Galway not beaten in a championship match since 2015, Kilkenny face the county’s most important game since the replayed Senior Final of 2014. Nowlan Park should be jammers. Serious progress for the home side not just in 2019 but over the next couple of seasons requires a win.
They got the job done in the first round against Dublin, following ropey performance levels before the break. Thereafter mental resolution proved the hinge, swinging a five point win at 2-23 to 1-21. Tomorrow will be a more exacting examination.
The younger brigade would benefit immeasurably from a win, however it was achieved. 54 weeks ago, Galway beat Kilkenny by 1-22 to 2-11 in Salthill. The current panel is not so different. That Leinster round robin occasion proved not so much a victory as a dismissal, an eight point defeat that felt like an 18 point defeat.
So emphatic a loss can only be expunged by emphatic victory against the same opposition. Tomorrow afternoon is a moment of medium term truth for this group of Kilkenny hurlers.
To their eternal credit, Kilkenny rallied and drew 2018’s subsequent Leinster Final. Yet said replay’s margin of defeat, seven points, left intact this new dynamic, with Galway pulling up into a 1-28 to 3-15 scoreline. 29 scores against 18 scores is its own account.
Assessing Kilkenny in 2019 is difficult. Last year, they mixed encouraging showings (winning the NHL Final against Tipperary, that Leinster Final draw, narrow loss to Limerick in the All Ireland quarter final) with dubious outings. Unimpressive against Offaly, Kilkenny were humdrum to poor against Dublin, Galway and Wexford in the round robin, before shearing off the pace in that Leinster Final replay. 2019’s NHL erratic form ultimately led to a faux relegation, off the back of desperate displays against Wexford and Cork.
Four weeks ago, victory over Dublin kickstarted a measure of optimism. Tommy Walsh, the former star, spoke for supporters when he remarked this week:
The staleness evident in much of the last two seasons’ hurling seems vanquished. Plus, the team is acquiring a more settled look. Bar Billy Ryan coming in at centre forward for the injured Walter Walsh, the same men go out as started against Carlow in the second round. This factor is particularly important at the back, where continuity in personnel fosters consistent defending.
The major questions concern Pádraig Walsh’s approach to marking Jonathan Glynn at centre forward and Huw Lawlor’s success on the deceptively tall Jason Flynn at full forward. Kilkenny’s spine is getting a chance to settle ― but is not yet there. Marking an in form Conor Whelan hoves as the biggest task of the other Tommy Walsh’s young career.
The Kilkenny bench, which now includes Cillian Buckley, Richie Hogan, Joey Holden and James Maher, is quite formidable. If Conor Delaney, Eoin Murphy and Walsh resume fitness, Kilkenny suddenly have a notably strong 26. But they need time for these improvements to accrue ― and victory tomorrow, as well as ensuring a Leinster Final place, would buy what counts, in context, as lots of time.
Encouragements include Alan Murphy’s sound impact at midfield against Dublin. While eyebrows were raised at this choice, his training form obviously held up. A similar point could be made about Bill Sheehan’s appearance against Carlow.
This angle strikes me as significant. Training form over the last two seasons was not generally reliable. Case in point: Pat Lyng’s ineffectual showing against Limerick in that All Ireland quarter final. If an individual’s form holds up on a championship day, you can discern broader good. Training overall must again be a sturdy yardstick. Maybe a preparation corner has been turned in this regard.
Needless to add, Galway could provide a severe reality check. The power is there, all the while, even in Joe Canning’s absence. Yet there must be caveats. I attended Nowlan Park for their NHL semi final with Waterford. What struck me most was the powerful start Galway made, pretty much lording it. But this blast could not be sustained, with Waterford eventually surprise winners.
Galway now hurl mostly in bursts. A side with serious mileage, with more or less the same set of players doing the legwork, lapses into this contour. Their leading figures are at least five years into a cycle that began in 2015 ― eight years since 2012, in some cases. The fact that Joseph Cooney could return from a period travelling and slot straight back into the championship team speaks for itself. So does the continued prominence of Davy Glennon and John Hanbury.
What I expect is a Galway blaze in the first half, right from the throw in. If Kilkenny do not concede more than one goal, they should be well in the contest after half-time. Then true mettle can be gauged. If they have the solution, Kilkenny will be genuinely dangerous come July. A TJ Reid penalty might generate the requisite momentum.
Tomorrow’s other Leinster tie stands as Wexford hosting Carlow. The home county spirals off two draws that could have gone either way. My governing sense is that Wexford will be dangerous, this season, on their day but are not learning much about how to optimise their chances. For them, this occasion in Wexford Park will effectively be pacing on the spot.
A somewhat downbeat feeling colours Munster matters. Part of the mood is Tipperary’s all but remorseless excellence thus far. Greater part is too many poor displays. So far, this summer has been nothing like as abundant in the twin blooms of quality and drama. There are a fair few brown spots on these leaves.
Clare head to the Gaelic Grounds, a venue that hardly counts as an away game. Limerick are up ― in both senses, following comprehensive defeat of Waterford. I spoke during the week to a friend from St Joseph’s Dorra-Barefield. As glum as ever I heard him on prospects, he felt Clare were outfought on the pitch and outthought on the sideline. Yes, they put in a good first quarter and somewhat more. But there was no gear into which this team could clutch up once the racing speed accelerated.
Previewing Clare and Tipperary, I wondered whether the former’s half back line counted as sufficiently creative, whether Cathal Malone, Jack Browne and David Fitzgerald offered enough as score makers. While Malone did reasonably well, the trio underwhelmed, once more, as suppliers.
The nub lies in the type of ball that advantages John Conlon and Shane O’Donnell, Clare’s main chances of goals. These men relish zipped diagonal ball, deliveries that commit a marker’s body weight. Conlon can deal perfectly well with high balls, so long as these deliveries are quickly flighted. With deliveries into attack, flight rather than height is the key aspect.
Yet Clare’s current half backs think predominantly of a quick transfer short into midfield or a tackle-breaking burst through midfield. If nothing else, they are too predictable in possession. Banner dots are simply not being joined up.
A coherent view argues Colm Galvin and Pat O’Connor should be the wing backs. Galvin and O’Connor, due to superior strokeplay and stickwork, would offer increased creative input. This arrangement looks easier if Oisín O’Brien became available for corner back. Again, this rejig spools into Cathal Malone partnered in a workmanlike midfield by Shane Golden (or possibly, in a nod to craft, by Tony Kelly). A pairing of Kelly and Galvin, ostensibly attractive, never seems to fly.
Being realistic, Clare do not need a paint job and a fresh set of tyres. They need a new gearbox and a new engine, a structural overhaul. The gears are grinding when an important contest heats up.
You come back to the debate about whether Kelly and Podge Collins, who did well in spots in Tipperary, can start on the same team. Would Kelly being chased from corner back rather than from centre forward change the dynamic? Would this approach staunch Pádraic Maher’s latitude as a ball-playing score-making centre back?
All these queries funnel into one concern: Clare’s need for their half forwards as an outlet for puckouts and clearances on the beat. Should John Conlon be regrooved there, with Aron Shanagher at full forward? Conlon and Shanagher are certainly alike in dependence on left side striking.
The last column wondered whether Brendan Maher marking Kelly on his peregrinations might advantage Clare, creating space, keeping Rónan Maher and Pádraic Maher occupied. Famous last prognostications… No such outcome. Maher, B, gained the upper hand early doors and kept all avenues closed to Kelly’s influence. Clare’s false 11 simply experienced true blues ― not for the first time in this role.
The blade is to Limerick’s neck. They must draw or win. A loss tomorrow guillotines their term as All Ireland Champions. Unruffled, John Kiely exchanges Diarmaid Byrnes for Dan Morrissey at wing back, trusting in momentum regained against Waterford.
Even allowing for local dynamics, even allowing for Clare’s 11 point championship win in 2018, this tie clicks as a home win. Calling an away triumph in these circumstances would be recourse to hurling’s zodiac, an imposition on unseen powers.
This evening, Waterford travel to Páirc Uí Chaoimh, where Cork are expected to engulf them. Páraic Fanning and colleagues made seven changes to the starting Waterford team (with Pauric Mahony’s absence dictated through suspension). If you are reading this column, you will have heard amplified stories of ruaille buaille in their camp. Less said, the better.
Cork are coming back to themselves. Their flat day against Tipperary in the first round might have been residual regret about not making 2018’s Senior Final. Cork got so near, that semi final day against Limerick, but then were pushed away so very hard. Regret can be like a concussion, a loss of focus through self pity. Still, their terrific second half performance against Limerick eliminated grogginess.
The Waterford forwards named will hardly make too many inroads on a resurgent backline. Ball-winning influence hardly extends beyond Shane Bennett and Stephen Bennett. Much as there is no pleasure in saying so, I would be amazed if Waterford get anything more than experience from this game.
The Cork defence’s brief should be producing a businesslike performance without recourse to the high octane emotion involved in that trip to the Gaelic Grounds. To best show they mean All Ireland business in 2019, the Munster Champions must look this evening to nuts and bolts more than to flame and sword. If their defence does the basics, Cork will run close in August.
Right now, the Déise scéal scrolls a depressing story. Hurling cannot afford Waterford hurling so far from its best. Consider the deflationary effect their below par performances on this summer’s Munster Championship.
With so much talk about tactics, with so much discussion leading on data and statistics, people forget hurling is a romance. Emotion is key. As well ask someone why he fancies his partner as ask him why he undertakes, as an amateur, the workload involved in an intercounty career.
How else explain Waterford’s impasse? There is, once a romance sours, no more acrid aftermath.
A depressing story, right enough. But do not make the common mistake. This tale is not a neat contrast between a return to traditional 15 on 15 hurling versus convoluted means of doing without a half forward line. Páraic Fanning acted as a selector with Davy Fitzgerald both when the latter managed Waterford and during his present stint at Wexford. Fitzgerald is routinely namechecked by Derek McGrath in the warmest terms. There is no simple divide.
Equally, Fanning was manager of James Stephens for 2008’s Senior Final against Ballyhale Shamrocks. That Kilkenny day, advantaged by a gale in the first half, James Stephens opted for seven defenders from the start, with Peter Barry as the spare man. Down seven points at halftime, 2-7 to 0-6, James Stephens ultimately lost by only five points, 2-11 to 0-12, following late Ballyhale scores. The city club were so unimpressed by this illogic that Fanning’s tenure was ended after one season.
Do not make the common mistake. Waterford’s impasse remains far more a psychological snarl than a tactical tangle. Páraic Fanning is far from a ‘dyed in the wool traditionalist’, whatever the clichés strewn about. Whoever is Waterford manager for 2020 inherits a slippery cup and loose lips. The past can be a sharp delight, as those drinkers in that Kilkenny pub experience each autumn. But time’s whirligigs can sometimes corkscrew you into the ground.