A couple of the darts thrown at Kilkenny manager Brian Cody these days as he throws a number of youngsters in at the deep end of championship hurling. Since the former Allstar corner-back took over the team in 1999, and even in the two years before that, Kilkenny have reigned supreme in Leinster, six titles on the trot, three All-Ireland finals contested, two semi-finals. Tomorrow they head into another, but with a much-changed side from that which took the field at the same stage twelve months ago.
Out go Eamonn Kennedy, John Power, Stephen Grehan, Charlie Carter, no place even on the bench for Denis Byrne and Canice Brennan; in come a plethora of youngsters, names like Richie Mullally, Derek Lyng, Martin Comerford, with a host of others waiting in the wings. But, why change? Well, against the argument that six Leinster titles on the trot is impressive, in Kilkenny, one All-Ireland title to date certainly isn’t. Hurling uber alles, Kilkenny uber alles, in a county where hurling has no rival, they expect a much better strike rate than one-in-five. Change, as manager Cody explains, had to come.
“Teams evolve, change all the time, and our team has done that as well. You can’t keep going on past performance and last year against Galway simply wasn’t good enough. We were comprehensively beaten, though there was much talk about what a great team we were, raging hot favourites, reckoned to be producing magical hurling.
But we weren’t really. Our results in Leinster against both Wexford and Offaly were exaggerated, neither result was a true indicator of what had happened for most of those games. Regardless of what people might think, our job is to go out and find the best talent available to Kilkenny. We’re not the finished article, but the finished article doesn’t exist as far as I’m concerned, never has. We’ll work away, try and improve our team, and if we can improve it for next Sunday, we will”.
The only improvement deemed necessary from the latest Leinster triumph was the addition of the prodigal DJ Carey at corner-forward, in place of the unlucky Charlie Carter. But even DJ himself, while fully sympathetic to the demise of his erstwhile comrades-in-arms, sees improvement. “Even in the short period I’ve been out, things have tightened up so much. Younger fellas have come in, they’re fighting for their places, they’re lively, they’re tight, they’re fast, good hurlers, strong, well-conditioned. There’s a panel there now, even beyond what’s starting, and even though lots of those lads would not be known, they’re serious hurlers. Pat Tennyson, Tommy Walsh, Walter Burke, Brian Dowling, lads like that, and a lot of other fellas there you wouldn’t have heard of, but they’re flyers. Charlie is very unlucky to lose out, especially in the circumstances, but it would be no good either without a bit of controversy. You need competition for places, you need to have these close calls, and you need to have lads disappointed if they don’t make the starting fifteen, no matter who they are. I’d have been disappointed myself if I hadn’t made it, even if I’d only been back on the panel one night; John Power I’m sure is very disappointed also, he’d love to be starting on Sunday as well, and he has been going very well in training. But it’s a 20-man show on any given Sunday now, a 30-man panel with any 20 able to play, and with John and Charlie, that’s some firepower to have in reserve.”
The fact that it IS a 20-man game nowadays means there is less pressure on a manager to get the starting fifteen right, but more pressure on the day to make the moves, when things go wrong. But even here, and just like the selection process itself, it’s hit-and-miss, as Cody explains. “My primary responsibility is to send out a team that will have spirit, that will perform with an absolute will-to-win, and you can’t afford to be hit-and-miss there. But picking the team isn’t an exact science, you go with what you think is right, the right balance. As for what happens on the day, you can’t legislate for that. Sometimes, honestly, you’re there on the sideline and you have no idea what to do, not the slightest. The game is going away from you, and you can’t see anything happening for you, no matter what way you look at it. You try things, and sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but as long as you’re being honest in what you do, that’s all you can do. Managers can become legendary figures of either genius or foolishness on the basis of the changes they make, but you really don’t know. It’s just about doing your job. There are no geniuses here, no geniuses out on the hurling field either, because every time you go out, you have to prove yourself all over again.”, and there’s always someone there waiting to hurl you. And they will hurl you; as soon as you think you have this game cracked, you’re gone”.
Could have been talking directly about DJ, but wasn’t. Nevertheless, that sentiment was echoed exactly by the man himself, when complimented on how sharp he was looking in training. “You’ll only know sharpness in a match. You’re hoping, but that’s the best you can do, hope that you’ll do well. It’s nice to be back, to be playing in the new Croke Park, but there’s no covering-up there, no hiding.” All you can do, year after year or even if it’s your first time, is hope things go well for you.” No-one can turn on a magic button, you might have a starring role one day, be called a genius, but that doesn’t mean it will happen again the next day. I’m glad I came back, there’s a good buzz there now and hopefully we can continue it. But Tipp will be saying that as well.”
Youth and experience then, “the blending process”, as Clare selector Louis Mulqueen calls it. So far, with their team already in the All-Ireland final, it looks like Clare have got it right. Sunday will be the test for Kilkenny.