The frightening thing is they might just be starting out.
You heard us: this latest team of Brian Cody’s could just be warming up.
There you probably were last Sunday, admiring yet resenting the sheer familiarity of it all; another September, another quirky celebratory jig of delight from their manager, another evening and winter ahead scrambling to find new ways to describe how Kilkenny and Cody have managed to do it again.
Well, if you weren’t too enamoured about the sight of Cody winning his 11th All-Ireland as Kilkenny manager, here’s a sobering prospect: what’s out there to stop him from winning a 15th sometime in next six or seven years?
After Kilkenny had disposed of Waterford in the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final, then Déise manager Davy Fitzgerald felt that a change was a comin’. Kilkenny might have been on the verge of a fourth All-Ireland on the trot but he sensed the pack, and not just Tipperary, was closing in on them.
To Fitzgerald’s credit, he would squeeze the max left out of that Waterford team in leading them to four consecutive All-Ireland semi-finals, Liam Sheedy’s Tipperary would win a final outright, and in 2013 Fitzgerald would reach the summit himself with his native Clare, but the era he envisaged never materialised. Kilkenny remained and remain top cats, just with a different cast. As Richie Hogan reminded us all last Sunday night from the CityWest, he and Eoin Larkin were the only two starters from 2009 to start last Sunday. The revolution never happened, only supreme Kilkenny evolution.
Because they’ve for so long had the one manager, we can misleadingly think this is the one team.
Eoin Murphy was only 10 when Cody won his first All-Ireland as a manager. He was still a minor when James McGarry, with the three-in-a-row in the bag, slapped hands with PJ Ryan to take up between the posts for the closing minutes of the 2008 All-Ireland final.
Paul Murphy was 11 when Michael Kavanagh wore the number two jersey the day Offaly were brushed aside in the 2000 All-Ireland final; 11 years on, he’d inherit it himself when picking up his first Celtic Cross and Kavanagh, his eighth.
Joey Holden was 10 when Noel Hickey donned the famous number three stripey jersey in 2000.
As much as we can sometimes think this is the first summer in aeons that Jackie Tyrrell hadn’t sole possession of the number four jersey, he was only sitting his Leaving Cert the same year Willie O’Connor sweated buckets in that same jersey and lifted the same Liam MacCarthy Cup.
Padraig Walsh was only 11 when his brother Tommy opened the scoring in the 2003 All-Ireland final and his All- Ireland medal count of nine.
Kieran Joyce had just started secondary school when Eamon Kennedy was Kilkenny’s centre back, had still yet to start college when Peter Barry hung up the same number six shirt, and, at 24, had still yet to play league or championship when another centre back called Brian Hogan lifted the Liam MacCarthy in 2011.
Cillian Buckley was still in school when JJ Delaney was left-wing-back on the four-in-a-row team that tripped up Tipperary at the death of in 2009.
How is it they do it? Because under Cody, methods and faces may change but principles don’t. The same spirit blazes on, moulded out of the furnace that is Nowlan Park.
Michael Kavanagh and Philly Larkin no longer play corner-back for Kilkenny; only they do hurl on, in the guise of Paul Murphy.
Tommy Walsh has morphed into his brother Padraig. DJ Carey has segued into Richie Hogan. TJ the past two years has been as dominant and as masterly as Henry ever was over a similar time period, making it quarter-of-a-century and counting now that the most preeminent player in the game has been a Kilkenny man.
Michael Fennelly is the best of Derek Lyng, Michael Rice and even Frank Cummins rolled into one with a whole lot of the best of himself thrown in.
Kieran Joyce is in the tradition of big hearts if not quite big names like John Tennyson, Richie Mullally and James Ryall.
Ger Aylward has taken up the torch from the likes of Aidan Fogarty.
Cha, the Comerfords, Eddie, Charlie, John Hoyne, Denis Byrne; they’ve all departed — only they haven’t. From breaking hurleys, crashing shoulders, trying to get in a clearance or shot against the likes of them in Cody’s cauldron, by even watching them on the box or from the stands, the likes of Larkin, Walter Walsh and Colin Fennelly have assumed that exacting standard and shared knowledge.
Does this side, now eyeing up a three in a row, have the talent and depth as the side that won four in a row? No.
In truth, this latest crop is more like the current Kerry team of Eamonn Fitzmaurice than the ridiculously-gifted sides Jack O’Connor had in the noughties.
But who’s there to stop them? Looking at the hurling landscape and there is no equivalent of Jim Gavin’s Dublin, Sheedy’s Tipp or O’Grady’s Cork to foil them.
There are plenty of teams capable of seriously challenging.
Galway if they build on this year; as disappointing and drastic as their second-half underperformance was, it’s almost impossible for a team to come along with five rookies and expect to win an All-Ireland straight away; but trying to recreate the momentum and the this-is-our-time sense that Anthony Cunningham radiated will be difficult.
Clare have the talent but need for their players to strengthen up and their manager to loosen it up.
Any Cork manager has so much low-hanging fruit to gather but will the county board appoint one who will do even that? The Tipperary succession plan was presumably made with the view of retaining rather than pursuing an All-Ireland; it will be a challenge for Michael Ryan to tell that dressing room something it hasn’t heard from him as a selector before — unless he has in mind quite a different dressing room.
Similarly, we wouldn’t be a bit surprised if either Waterford, Limerick or Dublin likewise reached next year’s All-Ireland final — or crashed out in the first round of the qualifiers, oscillating fortunes Tipp and Galway each experienced in recent years. There’s very little between numbers two and eight. It’s a matter of structure, purpose and a little bit of fortune.
The one team we can safely predict who’ll make it to the All-Ireland quarter-finals or beyond is Kilkenny, just like they will for the next five years. Outside of Eoin Larkin, Sean Prendergast and the injury-ravaged Michael Fennelly, the team are all 28 or younger.
They don’t intend to go anywhere — and behind them is another generation of schoolgoers ready to learn from them how it’s done, Cody-style.
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