ENDA MCEVOY: Kilkenny haven’t gone away, you know...

One could spend a couple of paragraphs here speculating as to how well or otherwise Pat Gilroy’s Dublin hurlers will perform at Parnell Park tomorrow, writes Enda McEvoy

At the very least, their biggest and most strapping XV will take the field, upon which they’ll adopt a defensive crouch, try and make the pitch as small as possible and engage their opponents in a gigantic grinding match.

One could spend a couple of further paragraphs speculating as to how much better the boys in blue will be next year and the year afterwards, having had more than merely half a season under the current managerial dispensation.

By 2020 it’ll be a disappointment if Gilroy’s Dublin are not trying to make the pitch as large as possible and it’ll be an even bigger disappointment if he hasn’t worked his mojo and transformed them into genuine All-Ireland semi-final contenders.

Look what he’s done in the past with startled earwigs.

However, you’re not overly interested in that, are you? You’re more interested in the visitors to Parnell Park than the hosts. You’re more interested in the crowd that appear to have reinvented themselves in a preposterously short space of time and slipped almost seamlessly into their latest feline skin. You’re more interested in the Evil Ones.

So, here’s the bad news and it’s as unnerving as most readers will have feared. Kilkenny are legitimate MacCarthy Cup contenders again, a sentiment that couldn’t possibly have been uttered two months ago.

The good news? They’re more likely to be All-Ireland champions in 2019 or 2020 than they are in 2018. A little too young for the most part, a little too callow, with too many of them as yet unequipped physically to break the tackle. No team that cannot first break the tackle will take down Galway this year.

Still, as Cork folk with memories of 1999 and even 1966 will be aware, and Clare folk with memories of 2013 ditto, occasionally the starlets align, these things take on a life of their own and stuff, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, happens. What’s more, the manicured levelness of this summer’s playing field is almost as auspicious for Kilkenny as it is for Galway and Tipperary.

Brendan Bugler and Shane O’Donnell after the 2013 All-Ireland hurling final replay

While a wide-open hurling championship is never anything other than a cause for rejoicing, too many people fail to realise such an entity is even better news for the traditional powers than it is for the aspirants. The fact that anyone is deemed capable of winning it implies the traditional powers are no great shakes. The corollary is that, in order to win it, they won’t have to be.

The introduction of a round-robin system in Munster and Leinster tilts matters — whether deliberately or more likely without any deliberation at all on the part of the counties who assented — in favour of the big armies. Reaching the All-Ireland final as provincial champions will take six games; reaching the All-Ireland final as beaten provincial finalists will take seven games; reaching the All-Ireland final as the third-placed team in either province will take seven games. Kilkenny played four games in winning in 2014.

Kilkenny players take to the field in the 2014 All-Ireland hurling final

The importance of bombing out of the traps, or at any rate avoiding being left in the box, cannot be overstated. To hold that all counties will be running on fumes by round five misses the point; some possess the resources to cope better than others.

By way of illustration, the timing of Kilkenny v Wexford for the final weekend of Leinster’s round robin, as opposed to the first weekend, is better news for Kilkenny than it is for
Wexford. More bodies to draw from, some of them belonging to Paul Murphy, Colin Fennelly and Richie Hogan.

Given that they targeted the National League in a way that others didn’t — Cork and Waterford among them — an element of Kilkenny’s success in the competition was founded on superior fitness and application, advantages that will have disappeared by July.

The league, however, represented more to them than merely the capture of silverware. It was nothing less than a fumigation of the house and a banishment of the pestilential airs of 2017.

Last year saw not only the fleeting existence of the poorest team of Cody’s reign, it saw the existence — again, fleeting — of the poorest Cody of Cody’s reign. Kilkenny were weak on the field and limp off it. The management team looked powerless as the car crash unfolded before their eyes. This time around, they’re driving the vehicle.

The men in stripes have purpose and coherence and they have a spine. They even, heaven help us, have a gameplan as far removed from their business dealings of old as it is possible to imagine: Eoin Murphy going short to a corner-back who picks out Cillian Buckley who zaps a pass to a wing-back or midfielder, or to Paddy Deegan on the burst, and so on up the field, through the outlying enemy pickets.

Imagine!

Next thing you know they’ll be using mobile phones and drinking alcopops and other such new-fangled nonsense.

Eoin Murphy

For a man who once joked about his reluctance to use subs, Cody has undergone a Damascene conversion, or more likely has been cattle-prodded into one. In their eight outings during the league, Kilkenny made 36 substitutions, more than half — 19 — before the 50th minute. No gawking, no messing, do the job or you’re off.

Instead of being espatched, sirens wailing, to the scene of every latest blaze, TJ Reid has been left to his own devices at number 11 and in response has produced the finest, most mature hurling of his life. The retirement of Michael Fennelly has been a barely disguised blessing, removing a sideshow that was complicating preparations (would his back hold up and what pieces would be moved to what parts of the board if it didn’t?) for every outing.
Richie Leahy resembles a reincarnated Brian McEvoy but they’ve taken care not to run an U21 into the ground.

Even over and above the evidence furnished by the National League trophy, however, the turning of the corner is best illustrated by Kilkenny’s improvement in the scoring department.

In the 2017 league, they averaged 19.8 points per game, so no surprise they went on to muster an underwhelming 5-46 in their three championship outings. This time around, they averaged 25.125 points per game.

Their 1-27 of the semi-final against a sub-par Wexford might have been dismissed as a one-off were it not for their 2-23 in the final, on an afternoon when neither corner-forward made it to the 45th minute.

The implication of room for improvement up front is valid. The issue of potential damage to the full-back line under sustained bombardment or when Paddy Deegan is forced to turn is open for discussion.

The question of whether we’ll ever see the Richie Hogan of 2014 again has to be borne in mind. The inevitable apocalyptic scenario arising from Reid breaking a fingernail is best ignored. And no, Kilkenny will scarcely beat Galway in Salthill, while the visit of Wexford to Nowlan Park is no gimme.

Yet, in big-picture terms, their resurgence is as unsettling for Clare, Cork and Waterford as it has been for Wexford. The presumed presence of Galway and Tipperary in the All Ireland semi-finals left room for two counties from a host of well-matched candidates. The chorus line of contenders has been supplemented by a young and energetic one in a striped outfit.

An All-Ireland hurling championship run more like a league than any previous iteration will, in the long run, be good news for Cork once they start channelling the numbers from their upgraded youth pipeline. In the short term, it’s good news for Galway, for Tipperary, and for the crowd who went away alright, but not for very long.

The cat came back.


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