Relentless Cats play the numbers game again

They haven’t come up with a term for it yet. Maybe they’ve developed an aversion for such things in Kilkenny since the ‘Drive for Five’ didn’t work out as they wanted.

In Madrid, they’d herald it as La Decima. That’s what they’re calling Real’s quest for a 10th European Cup, and as Brian Whelahan pointed out a couple of weeks ago about the identity of his Offaly team’s first-round championship opponents, Kilkenny appear determined to win a 10th All-Ireland for and with Henry Shefflin. It has a nice ring and round number to it — 10, whatever about La Decima.

That would put Shefflin two ahead of anyone else from any other county — Christy Ring and John Doyle — but there is one category that Doyle will hardly be surpassed on. The pride of Holycross won 10 national league medals. A different, less valued, but all the same staggeringly impressive, Decima. It’ll prove beyond even the pride of Ballyhale. But should Kilkenny beat Tipperary next Sunday, it will be the eighth NHL medal for Kilkenny in the Cody and Shefflin era.

It’s their record in the league that definitively gives Cody and Henry the edge over Micko and Mikey for the greatest GAA team of all time. On All-Irelands, it’s tight: nine to eight. But in terms of league and all-round year-round excellence, Kilkenny are incomparable.

Under Cody, they’ve won seven leagues. Under O’Dwyer, Kerry won ‘only’ three. Just three times in Cody’s 16 seasons in charge have Kilkenny failed to make the league semi-final or final; under O’Dwyer, Kerry only made the league quarter-finals or better every second year.

This Sunday is Kilkenny’s ninth league final in the last 13 seasons. Their fourth straight final, seeking their third straight title. No side has reached four consecutive league deciders in the last 40 years, not since Limerick in ‘74 (when they lost a third straight league decider, having initially won in ‘71). No side has won three straight league titles since Doyle’s Tipp pulled it off in ‘61. The last time anyone managed to string more than that together was when Mackey’s Limerick successfully completed their own drive for five in the spring of ‘38. Only two of those triumphs translated into September success though. Already Cody has pulled off five doubles.

It just goes to show you how stunning Kilkenny’s spring form has been down the years when you consider all the excitable talk since the weekend of a probable Dublin double double in the big ball. And Croke Park last Sunday also showed you just how much influence Kilkenny have had in football, despite their own distrust for that code.

In recent years the big guns have become merciless when they’re well ahead of a decidedly weaker team. Think of Gooch roaring out to his teammates in the closing minutes of a Munster championship game last summer against a humiliated Waterford side that he wanted another four scores before the end. Mayo racking on the scores in Connacht last summer and then on Donegal. Dublin piling it on the pain against Derry. Would they all have been so heartless before Cody’s Kilkenny could or would routinely drill opponent after opponent?

Would Tipp have hunted down that sixth goal against Limerick in the 2009 All Ireland semi-final, that seventh against Waterford in the 2011 Munster final, if they hadn’t thought Kilkenny would have? Would Cork have really sought out that 10th goal in Portlaoise in 2011 if they thought Kilkenny would have eased up against a Laois too, or after the sixth or seven Paudie O’Sullivan would have done a Ray Cummins, tapping it over the bar instead?

Hammerings have always been part of the GAA but there is particularly no easing up these days, even sometimes unnecessarily so at underage. Nearly everyone, and especially Jim Gavin’s Dublin, are mindful that when they get a chance to do ‘what Kilkenny would do’.

In contrast, hardly anyone dishes it out to Kilkenny. Under Cody they have played 119 league games, winning 89 and losing just 25, a winning percentage of 78%. Only three times in all those league games have Cody’s side lost by more than six points — to Clare in the ‘01 semi-final, Clare again in ‘04 and Dublin in the 2011 league final — and within 12 months of all those defeats Kilkenny dished out unmerciful hammerings to those same opponents.

This year that defiance has been particularly obvious. But on Sunday in Thurles they meet a side that has shown some resilience themselves. Last year Tipp learned the hard way that they couldn’t pin all their regression on Declan Ryan’s management — or at least shake it off. Instead of earning the right to win there was almost an entitlement to win. And yet they would have felt if they had got to play at all in Thurles or Croke Park last summer they would have gone close to winning it all. There’s space there that they couldn’t get in Limerick or Nowlan Park.

But Thurles suits Kilkenny too. Five of their seven league finals under Cody have been won there. Six in Semple has a nice ring to it as well.

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