DONAL OG CUSACK: Everyone’s out of puff in the Kilkenny Death Zone

Through incredible planning and focus, Kilkenny have oiled a conveyor belt of lean, mean hurlers that have placed All-Ireland glory on a summit out of the reach of most. As the serious contenders already turn to 2016, Dónal Óg Cusack examines how far they have to climb.

When you want to conquer Everest, the biggest challenge is the Death Zone. You get up above the 8,000-metre mark and there just isn’t enough oxygen for you to breathe. There is little more than 800 metres of climbing left to get you to that summit but all the things you were so good at down at sea level are much harder now. You will become weak and you will lose the ability to think straight. You suddenly struggle to make good decisions under stress. You become disoriented. You forget the plan. You can only survive for a certain amount of time using an oxygen bottle.

In hurling, the Death Zone is where Galway lost last Sunday’s All-Ireland final. The Death Zone is the second half of any All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. As a species they have evolved in Kilkenny to the point where they can survive longer and operate better in the Death Zone than any group we have ever seen. They don’t just prepare to survive the Death Zone. They prepare to be part of it. They prepare to exploit it.

Look at the mistakes Galway made in the second half. Simple basic errors. Disoriented. Stressed. Key men in their expedition went missing. The oxygen of time and space and confidence was taken away from them.

The Death Zone is the biggest challenge facing all hurlers who don’t wear the black and amber. The only active inter-county hurlers who have survived the Death Zone and reached the summit are a handful of Tipperary men who did it in 2010. But Tipp had leaders that day that they don’t have any more. They had Liam Sheedy that day and they don’t have him any longer.

Since that day, Kilkenny have won four out of the following five All-Irelands. Clare won the All-Ireland in the middle without playing Kilkenny.

This is 2015. The week after the All- Ireland hurling final. Every serious county is looking at the year ahead. The difficulty is that Kilkenny are looking at 2018 or 2019 at this stage. The use-by date of their great players doesn’t bother them. They’ve been preparing the replacements for two or three years, making them lean and mean and ready for the zone.

They have a system which produces candidates for the senior team. Joining the panel isn’t really a cause for celebration though. It doesn’t matter if you are Walter Walsh’s size of if you are DJ Carey’s cousin, you are going to do a lot of changing and go through a lot of torture before you become a reliable component.

Too many county teams round up the best available club players and make them fitter and more comfortable playing with each other. They don’t make them better. Kilkenny turn good Kilkenny players into greats.

When Cillian Buckley first appeared on the scene he didn’t turn many heads. I saw him say during the summer that the senior Kilkenny players used to refer to him as Slow and One-Sided. As an All-Ireland winning minor captain that’s going to take the wind out of your sail straight off.

A few years ago, if you looked at the classic Kilkenny half-back-line of Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan and JJ and said they’d all be gone soon, you’d have said Kilkenny would struggle. They’d have to. Cillian Buckley and Padraig Walsh won their minor All-Ireland together as two-thirds of a good half-forward line. It has taken incredible planning and very focused work to get them to the point where they are now. It’s some achievement to make the transition look seamless.

The same with Walter Walsh. When he made his Man of the Match championship debut in that All-Ireland final, you knew even that evening that life wasn’t going to be plain sailing for him after that. He spent a lot of time on the subs’ bench since then but to see him last Sunday reaching around John Hanbury without fouling him and then laying off to TJ Reid for the goal, you saw the schooling he has been getting ever since.

Everyone’s out of puff in the Kilkenny Death Zone

A player his size would have had the instinct to drive into Hanbury physically and then to put the head down and drive for goal. Instead he was subtle, skilful and imaginative.

Kilkenny’s dominance is based on their culture and their ethic and the fact that their legend drives itself on in the minds of Kilkenny players and in the minds of everybody they play. Any other county sitting down this week and wondering about how to catch Kilkenny needs to plan on doing everything harder than Kilkenny do and for longer than Kilkenny do and better than Kilkenny do.

They need to sacrifice more than Kilkenny. They need to hate losing more than Kilkenny.

In 1995, the Madman from Feakle, as Anthony Daly often calls Ger Loughnane, was essential in driving Clare to a breakthrough. All that white hot intensity and insanity created by Loughnane’s leadership and Mike Mac’s training brought Clare to the top. Now even the established counties need to tap into some of that madness as a starting point.

Who has it? We’ll start in the backyard. Munster.

had an idea during the summer for a reality TV show. Clare and Cork played a grand championship game one evening in Thurles and Cork won and everybody was happy. If you had only ever seen middleweight boxing, you might have thought that was as good as things get. Neither team though had what it would take to live in the Death Zone or to even get near it.

At the time, it struck me that it would have been interesting for JBM to go to Clare for a year and for Davy to come to Cork. The Clare lads could probably have done with a step down in intensity. The Cork lads might have benefited from a little unpredictability in their lives.

In Cork, we have come to a crossroads. We have gone backwards. No doubt about that. Now we are looking for a senior manager and are limited to a small group of people who will be acceptable to the ruling junta and also acceptable to the players. This is a hugely important appointment.

Rebel Óg under Kevin O’Donovan have demonstrated that the county can produce top quality players within their age group down the line. I believe that even now we could have the players at senior to really challenge. What happens in the next few years is key to the careers of those senior payers and the future of the players Rebel Óg are starting to produce. We have a lot of components. Do we have the wisdom to connect them and the ability to bring them through to minor, U21 and senior?

Whoever gets the Cork job is going to have to possess the sort of character that surprises a few people, especially the people who give him the job. I believe that the team needs better conditioning and better leadership and more intensity. There are a few guys who are just happy to be there. They wouldn’t survive in Kilkenny. They shouldn’t survive in Cork.

Of all the stories about Cork hurling which came to me in the past few weeks, one arrived in the form of a parable.

In the days of the old Soviet Union, Brezhnev and his buddies were making a long train journey from Moscow to another major city. Suddenly the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. Brezhnev and the boys sat in their luxury carriages drumming their fingers.

Finally, one of the boys said: “Don’t worry comrades and comrade leader, the workers in the fields will see the plight of their beloved leaders and form a collective to get this train going again.”

Word was passed on that the local peasants were too cowed and terrified to come near the train and had fled from their fields, back home to mind their own business.

“Well,” said another comrade, “we can always shoot the captain and the engineers. Would that make the train go?”

“It has already been done. Every one of the proletariat who knows how to make a train go has been shot. We’re still stuck here.”

Finally Brezhnev spoke. “Comrades. Worry not. Why don’t we just pull the curtains and turn up the gramophone and pretend that the train is still moving?”

Cork are stopped in the middle of nowhere. The train isn’t moving. Time to stop pretending, boys.

In Clare, the problems are different. Since winning the All-Ireland in 2013, they have beaten Offaly once in championship hurling and that is it. Rumours keep coming out about a move against Davy. Personally, I believe that Davy has the X factor when it comes to training teams. He needs good people around him though and in particular somebody who knows how to apply the brakes every now and then.

Clare’s main trouble is the degree to which all the talk of trouble affects the players. You have guys with All-Ireland U21 medals who will be convinced that they would be senior stars under another manager. And you have guys who are senior stars who just aren’t quite as sharp as they were two years ago. Look at the goal chances which Clare missed in the first half against Cork. I believe Shane O’Donnell was more of a killer two years ago than he is now. Tony Kelly, who got brilliantly hooked by Brian Lawton for another goal chance, is a victim of an inflexible system.

Everyone’s out of puff in the Kilkenny Death Zone

Clare need to calm down. Forget about 2013. Forget about the U21 wins. Learn from the mistakes. 2016 is Year Zero. They have a style of play which might just survive the Death Zone. For now they need to worry about getting up that mountain again and having the right leaders for when the air gets thin.

Tipperary must worry about themselves. I have an image of a conversation at the Kilkenny All-Ireland banquet last Sunday night. Brian Cody asks out of interest who won the Kilmacud Sevens. Somebody tells him Borris-Ileigh won their sixth title beating Loughmore Castleiney in the final. Cody nods with a little smile and says: “Yeah, the Tipp lads are very good at sevens.”

My father always says the same thing about Tipp. He says that the Tipp lads can hurl. Has a reverence towards the way Tipp hurl. He is right. If you put up a YouTube video of Tipp’s “best bits”, you couldn’t see them losing. If you stuck up Bubbles O’Dwyer’s best bits against Eoin Larkin’s, you would say the same. Tipp all the way. But run some sort of algorithm that measures Larkin’s ability to influence the outcome of big games, his work in the Death Zone, and you see Tipp’s problem.

They can hurl. They are mad for hurling. Do they still have the madness for hurling against Kilkenny? I love to watch them in full flow but in the next year or two they need to start cloning Bonner Maher type players. The classy hurlers they specialise in coming up with have to be part of the show not the whole show.

In Waterford, I think they face into the winter in a better place than most counties. Derek McGrath has everybody singing the same tune. I’m sure he sat and looked at the All-Ireland final and smiled a little smile to himself when he remembered the criticism his team’s perceived style got for most of the year.

When the All-Ireland final unravelled with long spells where Kilkenny had one, perhaps two, forwards in the Galway half, McGrath must have wished he had come up with a classic like: “Sure we have no tactics. We make it up as we go along!”

Waterford have good quality young players. They don’t seem to have too many hang-ups. They have a few good leaders on the field and next year the natural step is to stop putting such a burden on Maurice Shanahan at full-forward. Get more bodies into attack quickly. Discover width. Develop the ability to keep recycling the ball until the right option opens up.

In Stephen O’Keeffe, Waterford have a goalie I admire. His shot-stopping and his bravery are wonderful. I’m looking to see him add more composure and better game management to his attributes next year.

Limerick play an U21 final this weekend and they know better than any other county what a false dawn U21 success can be. They have good resources, a good school system, good underage work. Time to put the puzzle together and time to discover how to get the performances out of themselves on big days. For now, it is anybody’s guess what version of Limerick will turn up on any given day.

Beyond Munster, I think Galway will be feeling steam-rolled psychologically. In some ways, you could argue that it would be better for them to have lost an epic All-Ireland semi-final to Tipp by a point than to have had to endure what happened to them last Sunday.

At half-time, they must have sat in that dressing room and thought that all the plans were coming together. This was them at their best. 35 minutes left. And then… I would argue that things aren’t as bad as they feel right now. A defeat that really, really hurts is good fuel. They no longer depend on Joe Canning. Glynn, Flynn and Mannion are good finds but what was really encouraging was that in the second half of the All-Ireland final, an 18-year old Conor Whelan showed more heart and guts than perhaps any other Galway man on the field.

There is only one solution. Galway failed. Do it again and next time fail better. And then do it all again. The day will come when they won’t fail. In the meantime, no point in feeling any more sorry for themselves than any other county.

Elsewhere in Leinster? Ger Cunningham will know who and what he has in his dressing room in Dublin by now. Here’s a strange thing. At times when I listen to Dublin lads talking hurling I’m always a bit surprised by how self-confident and pleased with themselves they are. Maybe it’s just in their nature. In recent years, no team has put together more desperately disappointing performances when better was expected of them. I’d love to see them hate that fact more than they seem to. I’d love to see them absolutely refusing to lose. I’d love to see Dublin win the All-Ireland if only for the fact a full Hill 16 of Dublin hurling supporters would be great for the game, not to mention that no other group of hurlers live so much in the shadow of a football team. Hurling needs a Dublin All-Ireland win.

The guys who stayed together under Anthony Daly’s reign had their chance this year. Some didn’t like it and some didn’t measure up. Now Ger’s only option is to be ruthless.

There is paranoia in Dublin about being described as manufactured hurlers. I don’t know why. Henry Shefflin would be the first to say that he was manufactured. Hard obsessive work and good coaching turned him from an average underage player into what he became. Kilkenny are busy manufacturing all the time. I don’t imagine Cillian Buckley ever went to Brian Cody and said ‘sorry Brian. I’m actually a forward’. Dublin need to manufacture the players for the positions they are weak in. They need leaders.

A big disappointment this year was Wexford. A clear step backwards from the summer of 2014. Getting rid of Jack Guiney might have been one of those decisions which had to be taken at the time but it revealed shallowness in the Wexford panel. JJ Doyle’s work with the U21s needs to bear more fruit, regardless of what happens this evening.

Elsewhere, teams ebbed and flowed as the teams slightly outside the top table seem to always do. I enjoyed signs of progress in Kerry though and hope this week’s appointments in Offaly will bring a great county back to the centre of the game.

All in all, a poor year though. There are things we need to change. Our media performance is woeful. A top politician asked me during the year could I get him a leading hurler and footballer for an event. He had a list of footballers. Of hurlers he could name Henry (retired) and when pressed, Joe Canning. People might laugh at that but if you walked into a pub and the Galway and Kilkenny teams were sitting at tables around the place in their street gear, how many would you recognise?

We need names on the backs of jerseys. We need to concentrate on being more open to the media instead of leaving a vacuum which gets filled with criticism, sniping and pundits who become caricatures of themselves! We need to look at the black card or some other level of sanction (not a huge success in football I know but very few refs would have sent Johnny Coen off last Sunday but most would agree he deserved to be sent off. Shouldn’t there be some measure less extreme?)

We need to look again at our calendar and the way we structure the inter-county summer. All that is for another day though. For now the Death Zone and how to survive it is the number one issue in the hurling world...

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