Spicy starter before Cats’ main course

LAST Wednesday, I rang a pal who’s seen more than his fair share of inter-county training sessions with a proposition.

“I’m thinking of heading to Nowlan Park,” I said. “I wanted to see Kilkenny training, would you be interested in coming along?”

The answer was instantaneous: “When can you pick me up?”

Kilkenny training sessions have gathered a certain mythology in recent years, with whispers about practice games that don’t resemble hurling so much as the TV show Deadliest Warrior, in which Viking berserkers take on Samurai warriors and so forth.

When we landed into Nowlan Park, however, there was no raw meat strewn on the pitch; enemy heads weren’t stuck on pikes at the gateposts either.

The players were stretching and warming up, and then broke into a running drill; manager Brian Cody then spoke to the players in midfield before they divided into two full teams in green and blue jerseys.

My travelling companion was impressed: “The warm-up isn’t that structured, but that’s not surprising – these lads are on the go so long that management obviously trust them to do the right thing.

“For the game they have 15-a-side and two players who can come in as subs, not to mention those three – Power, Larkin and Tyrrell – doing rehab. That’s good because it’s a full game and space will be tight enough.

“If the players approach it in the right way, then they don’t have a chance to develop bad habits, which they would if it was only 11 or 12-a-side.”

We can tell you: the perception that Kilkenny play training games with sabres and nunchucks rather than hurleys is wrong. They don’t.

But it’s still spicy. TJ Reid arrived into Tommy Walsh’s orbit with a hefty shoulder before the ball was even thrown in, which leads one to ponder: if Tommy gets the láimh láidir in training games, why bother replicating the same in a championship match?

Later on, ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick was left stretched on the ground after one collision and JJ Delaney clearly didn’t appreciate a hurley being flicked across his facemask as he came up the sideline. TJ Reid was mauled from pillar to post as he tried to escape two markers but the only call was “steps”. From a defender.

The appeal fell on deaf ears. When we say Brian Cody refereed the game, we mean he blew the whistle to start each half, though for appearances sake he also gave a free for overcarrying.

The large crowd’s view of proceedings was also interesting: Noel Hickey got a rousing cheer when he cleared the first ball, but spectators didn’t seem too happy when the ball was handpassed around the middle or short puck-outs taken; they warmed to the longer, crisper deliveries.

My pal pointed to a couple of small things.

“When a player breaks a hurley he goes and gets a replacement himself. Now in a match, Kilkenny would have someone running the line with players’ spare hurleys, so in that sense this isn’t quite like a competitive game.

“But on the other hand, it just shows that the players take responsibility for what they’re doing themselves – it’s ‘get on with it’ rather than holding anybody’s hands.

“And you can see that attitude if someone gets a belt or a shoulder – nobody comes over to them. Unless they’re actually down injured, they’re expected to get on with it.”

After about 22 minutes of the game, Cody whistled for half-time.

The players assembled around him in the centre of the field, listening to instructions.

The intensity went up a notch when the game resumed, with a few flicks that weren’t scrupulously well-aimed, to put it mildly; tactically it was noticeable that players often eschewed a clear shooting opportunity from distance to find a better-placed colleague.

The second half lasted about as long as the first, and the players took on fluids for a few minutes before trooping to a far corner of the field for more running.

Many of the several hundred observers in the stands had left by then, having clearly come to see the game, so they missed the last drill. The backroom staff marked out a circuit of two-thirds of the playing area and the panellists ran around it – sprinting 30 metres, then jogging 15 before running another 30 metres and so on.

When each player – goalkeepers included – had done 20 30-metre runs, the session finished with a warm-down lap.

All in all, the session took about an hour and 20 minutes.

“That was a good session,” said my co-pilot.

“What impressed me was the players’ attitude – they’re there for work and there’s no messing.

“But a few small things also helped it run smoothly, things that maybe people wouldn’t pick up. The young fella behind each goal hitting back the sliotars – that speeds things up. Using jerseys for the mixed match saves time as well, there’s no big delay handing out bibs.

“There weren’t huge bags full of sliotars used, either – I’d say there wasn’t a dozen sliotars used in the whole session. And when it’s over, it’s over – there’s no staying out for frees or shooting practice. Obviously that work can be done on your own time.”

One session isn’t a representative sample, of course. There may be evenings when the fare is so torrid that farmyard animals are sacrificed on the 65-metre line, and there may be evenings that become watered-down, pallid non-events.

However, we’d be fairly sure that the sight of Brian Cody and his selectors carrying off the equipment themselves at the end of a training session is a common sight.

The same goes for the spontaneous invasion of the Nowlan Park pitch at the close of training.

Dozens of kids poured onto the turf to emulate their heroes and reenacting what they’d just seen; the future of Kilkenny hurling, plain for all to see.

* Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie; Twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

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