After Kilkenny’s first All-Ireland senior title under Brian Cody in 2000, the strength of his panel was lauded to such an extent that when the Cats cruised through Leinster the following year their second 15 were deemed the next best side in the country.
Although Galway stunned them in 2001, the same claim was being made after they returned to winning ways in 2002, much to Cody’s chagrin. “No, that’s fantasy stuff,” he retorted in March ’03. “They were saying that two years ago as well.”
When it was next put to him later in the decade - in Kilkenny’s most golden of golden eras - he simply refused to answer.
Those reserves mightn’t have been the country’s next best but they sharpened Kilkenny to be the best. Anyone who visited their training games before they shut up shop in Nowlan Park in 2012 would appreciate that. We recall one evening when, during a match, a blockdown was made out across the sideline which was so forceful that the ball flew into the Ollie Walsh stand.
Before last year’s All-Ireland final, Derek McGrath recalled watching the Kilkenny A v B game prior to the 2008 final against Waterford and the ferocity of it leaving him with a chill.
The few lucky ones who have seen Dublin’s in-house matches are mostly, if not all of the blue persuasion, so the intensity of the encounters wouldn’t have left them anything but emboldened. But, as they again indicate they’re capable of winning a fourth consecutive All-Ireland title, it’s surprising the compliments paid to the depth of Kilkenny haven’t been showered on Dublin’s pool of talent.
Sunday’s facile win over Kerry was more impressive for the players Dublin didn’t use on the day. Sure, Kerry would expect to bring in Tadhg Morley, James O’Donoghue and possibly Darran O’Sullivan, Stephen O’Brien and Anthony Maher, but then Dublin began with just two of the 2017 All-Stars.
What’s more, allowing a little licence to include long-term injuries Jack McCaffrey and Bernard Brogan, they could have named a formidable line-up outside of the 22 players they used in their 11th straight win across league and Championship: Evan Comerford; Eoin Murchan, Michael Fitzsimons, Cillian O’Shea; Darren Daly, James McCarthy, McCaffrey; Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly; Conor McHugh, Con O’Callaghan, Paul Mannion; Kevin McManamon, Eoghan O’Gara, Brogan.
Dublin may not have the second as well as the first best team in Ireland but they have the third or the fourth. With Brogan and McCaffrey out for some time to come, the needle points closer to the latter. There are a tad light in the full-back line - Jim Gavin’s comments about the unfairness of Michael Fitzsimons’ suspension reads to us as a pre-emptive strike when another red in an extended season later this year will see his suspension doubled - and midfield to a lesser extent. To have that quality of a peloton closing down on the leading group is a phenomenal advantage.
Under Pat Gilroy, the contribution of the auxiliaries was revealed after the 2011 All-Ireland final when players spoke of the importance of the “Killer B’s” who had defeated the A team the week before beating Kerry.
Similar stories have emerged in recent times. Last year, O’Callaghan spoke of the battles inside Dublin’s St Clare’s camp in Glasnevin and how the A side had also lost prior to beating Mayo: “I’d say we could have lost a couple but every A vs B game is seriously intense. There’s a couple of lads who don’t even make the B team and when they come in, there’s a huge intensity brought to every match. The A’s are looking to beat the B’s and the B’s are looking to beat the A’s every match.”
Match simulation is obviously essential and to that end both O’Callaghan and Philly McMahon also spoke of how Dean Rock’s concentration would have been steeled to combat distractions, if not perhaps a flying GPS unit, when taking frees. “We do a little bit of sledging as well to prepare him,” said O’Callaghan. “We’d have a bit of shouting, maybe a bit of booing. Nothing too bad. It’s just to put him in those situations.”
McCarthy admitted he was “thick” for a few days after losing the game. “There was plenty of needle,” he recalled.
Even though they would have had a referee brought in to take charge, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider players would be so keen to earn the bragging rights in these affairs that they may resort to the cynicism which Dublin forwards displayed on David Clarke’s final kick-out last September. That determination to win has been inculcated by just how, to borrow a word from Cody, savage the camp’s very own competition is, not just the competition for starting places.
When they were allowed, thousands turned up to see the same in Kilkenny. Tens of them would, if they could, flock to St Clare’s. An admission fee would be more than justified but for Dublin it is priceless.
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