When I was co-commentating with Tommy Walsh on Eir Sport for the Tipperary-Wexford game in February, we were shooting the breeze beforehand. The talk drifted back to the evening Dublin beat Kilkenny in Portlaoise in the 2013 Leinster semi-final, and the desolation and devastation I witnessed when I spoke (not often I got the chance) to the Kilkenny players in their dressing room afterwards.
Kilkenny looked absolutely broken. They were ravaged with injuries, and were now about to face their third big game within 13 days. On the way back up the corridor, I said to Dublin selector Richie Stakelum that Kilkenny would be some group of men if they could somehow lift it for Tipperary in the qualifiers just seven days later. I thought there was no way that they could.
I asked Tommy how Kilkenny had summoned the resolve and strength to win that match. He almost couldn’t understand the question. ‘Dalo, did you realise that it was Tipperary who we were playing?’ he said.
‘And there was absolutely no way we were going to let them beat us in our own place.’
I nodded. The penny finally dropped. The fascination with that image of the Kilkenny dressing room almost evaporated before me. It was Tipp who were coming into Nowlan Park. And for any Kilkenny player, allowing their great rivals to beat them down there was tantamount to treason and treachery against their own people.
Kilkenny certainly don’t take kindly to being beaten down in their own pitch. They don’t even like it when some team has to audacity to front up to them in Nowlan Park. One of the best games I was ever involved in was with Dublin in the 2012 league. It was epic goal-fest. We thought we had them beaten until Richie Hogan murdered us with a late goal.
At the final whistle, this big fella hopped in over the wire, jumped on my back and gave me a dunt. He told me what he thought of me in the process. In a split second, I went from shock to temper and I took a run at your man. I didn’t have to do anything; Vinny Teehan and John McEvoy had levelled him .The place had gone nuts. When I saw Michael Carruth, our masseuse, arrive on the scene, I said to myself, ‘We’re all safe now anyway.’
A Guard dragged your man away. Ned Quinn barred your man out of Nowlan Park. I got a follow-up call from the cop about making a statement but I’d no interest in nailing your man.
The Kilkenny hurling public are the soundest people you’d meet but they’ve been used to such high standards, and expectation, that they are fierce demanding. My brother Michael used to often go watch Dublin when we played Kilkenny in Nowlan Park and he would be taken aback by how animated the locals could be. They wouldn’t just be shouting at the opposition; they’d be letting their own fellas know too if they weren’t playing up to scratch.
When I was at the drawn Kilkenny-Galway Leinster semi-final in Tullamore in 2014, I was sitting a couple of rows behind Eddie Keher. He reminded me of Cody on the line; Eddie was hurling every ball; he was on to the linesmen and referee over the most marginal of decisions. I almost thought he was a member of management sitting in the stand.
You can imagine how heated the mood is in Nowlan Park when all that molten lava of passion and emotion is mixed up together. It’s a potent brew. And when Tipp come to town, it turns Nowlan Park into such a fortress that it would probably be easier to rob the gold out of Fort Knox.
Brian Cody will want his young players to sample that atmosphere, and to win it, for reasons more than just winning another league title. Cody has always taken the league seriously but I think this league has meant more to him because of how much he has identified it as a pathway. Despite the innate belief that its encrypted in a Kilkenny man’s DNA now, it’s almost as if Cody believes that if these young guys are going to cut it in the summer, winning the league would be the best way for him - and them - to really find out if they can.
I can see why Cody would be thinking that way. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that if Dublin didn’t win the 2011 league that we would not have won the 2013 Leinster title. It took us two years but we had to break down a multitude of barriers before we could cross that threshold. And that first big win - that 2011 league - was really the first big hurdle we cleared on that pathway.
You can already see how some of the young Kilkenny lads are growing but they are also beginning to understand the Kilkenny way under Cody. As Eddie Brennan said to me last Sunday evening before we went on ‘Allianz League Sunday’: “It’s all very well to say that these young lads have turned it around. But they will know by this stage that if they’re not producing the goods, Cody will get someone else to do it.”
It’s been a great campaign so far for Kilkenny but it’s been equally as impressive for Tipp, especially considering how much experimentation and new players they have tried.
Alan Flynn has been one of the players of the spring. Barry Heffernan has also impressed but other fellas, who nobody was really aware of outside of Tipperary - Billy McCarthy, Willie Connors, Paudie Feehan - have all shown that they have something to offer.
The depth of talent is huge but the most pleasing aspect for Mick Ryan is how some of the peripheral players have moved to the centre stage, especially Jason Forde.
You would never have considered Ronan Maher a peripheral player but he is a guy who has moved himself from the mid-tier into the elite bracket alongside his brother Paudie, Seamie Callanan, John and Noel McGrath and ‘Bonner’ Maher. Ronan has certainly added a new dimension to Tipp at midfield because he also provides an added scoring weapon to an artillery already loaded with big guns.
The one issue still probably hanging over Mick and his management is the number 3 spot. From having worked with James Barry with Munster for the Interprovincials, he seems like a great fella, a brilliant leader, a guy who would do anything to play. He has embraced the challenge of full-back. He has played there plenty of times before but I’m just not sure if he is fully happy there. You could see little kinks against Limerick. If Seamie Flanagan was a little more experienced, and had a bit more composure, he could have done way more damage for Limerick. It will be interesting now to see how Kilkenny might target that area because I’m fairly sure they will.
It would be a massive achievement for Cody to win this league given their starting point after two losses and all the predictions of relegation that went with it.
Cody will be delighted with how the team is growing and developing but I wouldn’t read too much into last week’s performance because Wexford were as flat as a pancake. I still think that Kilkenny’s true form is somewhere between the Offaly and Wexford displays.
My honest opinion is that a Tipperary full strength versus a Kilkenny full strength currently and Tipp win most times.
We just don’t know what Tipp team is going to line out tomorrow because that’s been Mick’s routine throughout the campaign.
Tipp will go big for this and I expect them to win. But it won’t be easy, especially in Nowlan Park.
Kilkenny will put on the war paint. And absolutely go to war for the honour of their unique tribe.