This is Kilkenny. Kilkenny win things. Kilkenny lift heavier weights and hit harder than any other team. Kilkenny are smart. Be like Kilkenny.
We’re not paraphrasing Michael Jordan’s “Be Like Mike” advertisement for Gatorade from the early 1990s but the recent social media meme fade featuring a drawn stick man called Bill. Kilkenny may be masters of sticks but they are far from it in stature.
In last year’s All-Ireland final, the average height of their starting team was just over 6ft as it was the year before but their average weight was almost a kilogram heavier, at 85.7kg (and would have been more, if Jackie Tyrrell had been fit).
But of course there’s so much more to the reigning All-Ireland champions than strength. In his annual report last month, GAA director general Páraic Duffy paid an extensive 220-word tribute to the “remarkable” Cats (42 words were devoted to the achievement of football victors Dublin).
Duffy wrote: “There is something in Kilkenny hurling, beyond the great players, tradition, county pride or match tactics, something to do with resilience, with a mental attitude that finds defeat incomprehensible, unbearable or even insulting, that raises them to levels of performance that other teams cannot match. (Brian Cody probably knows what this is!).”
There remains a majestic mystery attached to the greatness of Cody’s teams.
Would any other county have endured the injury list Kilkenny had last year and come out smiling the other side? Yet, by the sounds of it, both Cork and Tipperary believe they have put their finger on what has separated Kilkenny from them these past couple of seasons: muscle.
In December, Pa Horgan admitted Cork have to beef up if they want to compete with Kilkenny: “Fellas are running around pitches for months and one hit and they’re down on their knees breathless. It’s a different fitness. That’s what Kilkenny bring to everything. They hit so hard and often, that the running is taken out of fellas and they’re not able to run after it. It’s just getting your body in shape to withstand it.”
Around about the same time, a similar admission was made by new Tipperary manager Michael Ryan.
Explaining why he recruited footballers Seamus Kennedy and Steven O’Brien among others to this year’s Tipperary panel, he put his cards on the table: “We were deliberately going after guys who can compete physically and can do so quickly. With the modern players being incredibly athletic, there was an emphasis on more strength around the middle third as well as adding freshness and a new style to complement what we have already got.”
Tipperary’s one true failing in recent times has been a lack of players able to win their own ball and it has become more pronounced since John O’Brien and Pat Kerwick stepped aside.
Consider Cork’s primary ball-winners and Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane come to mind but they are pretty much the long and short of it.
On the surface, there is nothing earth-shattering about how Kilkenny prepare themselves physically.
The players use a host of gyms around the county but anyone who has seen their principal work-out room under Nowlan Park’s Ted Carroll Stand would appreciate just how Spartan it is in its decor.
There are no motivational slogans plastered across the walls and little in the way of mirrors. But everywhere there are weights. The team’s very own hurt locker.
Under the guidance of trainer Mick Dempsey, Kilkenny have become a supremely conditioned outfit. They are incredibly informed about their bodies. It helps that the likes of Paul Murphy, Eoin Larkin, and Colin Fennelly keep fit for a living in the Defence Forces but throughout the group their knowledge of things like what weight they should be at a certain time of the season is staggering.
At a press launch last month, Seamus Callanan seemed a tad perturbed by the questioning about a possible change in Tipperary’s style.
He acknowledged they had been criticised for not being physical enough against Galway in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final but maintained what has served them best is a game based on movement.
There is a danger for both Tipperary and Cork in moving away, however slightly it may be, from their core strengths. The likes of Clare and Waterford, on the other hand, look set to continue doing things for themselves.
Previewing last year’s All-Ireland final in this newspaper, Davy Fitzgerald questioned the idea of going man-for-man with Kilkenny when they “are the masters of one-on-one against any team they play and I don’t care how strong the other team is”.
Be like or, at the very least, be more like Kilkenny? It involves more than just pumping iron and picking bigger men (as much as that would lend more to Tipperary’s reputation than Cork’s of yore). It would have to incorporate a change of culture across the board going from encouraging a more laissez-faire approach to how club games are refereed to ending the dual debate once and for all.
Emulating Kilkenny doesn’t have to mean aping them. You mightn’t need to join them to beat them.
McStay the manager a different animal
Few will need reminding of just how streetwise Kevin McStay’s St Brigid’s were in beating Crossmaglen in an All-Ireland semi-final this time three years ago. So it should come as no surprise how his new team Roscommon protected their lead in Killarney on Sunday with might and a little malice.
Kerry were hardly innocent parties and that Roscommon showed such a steely determination to hang on will have pleased supporters no end after they let victory slip against Monaghan the previous Sunday.
McStay, though, was one of if not the most outspoken pundits against cynicism. As his players acquainted themselves with some of the dark arts in their attempts to stop Kerry at every pass and whittle down the clock, that inconsistency wouldn’t have been lost on followers of teams he has criticised in the past.
McStay will be greatly missed by RTÉ this year particularly for his knowledge of the rulebook although that expertise will surely come in handy as Roscommon set out to prove they’re not going to be pushovers in Division 1.
But having been the hunter of all things cynical, he now finds himself gamekeeper. As the season develops, it will become clearer and clearer that McStay the manager is not McStay the pundit.
Inevitably, there will be cries of hypocrisy but perhaps McStay is most guilty of simply being a realist.
Unlimited subs only suits the strongest
Endorsed by GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail, Ballinhassig’s motion to allow an unlimited number of substitutes in adult league games in Cork looks set to be passed at the county’s board meeting on February 23.
Cork chairman Ger Lane has welcomed the proposal for the same reasons as Ó Fearghail who regards it as an extension of the Go Games ethos where everyone gets a game.
Drop-out figures have been quoted in support of the plan and, undoubtedly the GAA has a challenge on its hands when so many players are lost by the age of 21.
Nobody seems to be suggesting it’s the thin end of the wedge and we might see it in future championship matches. However, if it comes to pass you can’t help but imagine the bigger clubs will be rubbing their hands with glee when the differences between what they have on the field and in reserve are marginal compared to others.
There’s also the fact that in many cases rural and small clubs at times don’t have 25 players available.
The six substitutes rule in Gaelic football, introduced for the purposes of the black card, has been shown to serve the stronger sides more. This latest development has a greater potential to polarise and marginalise across both codes in Cork.
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