Ominously for Cork, there could be a lot more to come, because the age profile of the starting fifteen suggests Kilkenny is a side just coming into its stride.
Keeper James McGarry (31) and DJ Carey (31) apart, the majority are in the the mid-20’s, with the same profile reflected in an extended panel studded with under-age stars.
They could, in fact, have already achieved greatness, challenging the Kerry football team of the ’70’s/’80’s for the mantle of greatest-ever GAA side. An unprecedented six Leinster titles on the trot, five All-Ireland finals in those six years, two already won.
Reviewing those years, the losses. 1998, Offaly, resurrected by an historic three game All-Ireland semi-final saga with Clare, avenge a five point Leinster final loss to the Cats with a six-point win.
Caught? You could say that, and you could repeat it about 1999. As certain as Kilkenny hurling fans had been in ’98, they were even more convinced a year later that against a raw and inexperienced Cork team that had come from nowhere, they were about to win compensation for the ‘injustice’ of ’98. Didn’t happen, lost again, a single point.
In 2000, Kilkenny were unstoppable, but less than a year later, they slipped again, surprised by Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Last year the hunger was back, so was the All-Ireland title, and a National League. 2003, the lessons of ’98, ’99 and 2001, finally seem to have been learned and there is a new aura about this Kilkenny side. League title already retained, they are gunning now for the championship, and with a very, very solid and single-minded look about them.
They might still be beaten, but it won’t be by complacency, won’t be for lack of mental resolve.
Two All-Ireland titles? Could certainly have been four, might even have been five-in-a-row, going now for six.
The only ever-present through that period? No, not DJ Carey, not Henry Shefflin. The quiet man at No 2, right-corner-back Michael Kavanagh.
Half an hour in Michael’s genial company and you begin to understand where all this Kilkenny success comes from, but more importantly, the unrelenting drive that keeps it all going year after year.
“A lot of great work is being done in Kilkenny at every level. It’s a traditional power but a lot of hard work is going on, especially at underage. Streams of talent come through the schools to minor level, though when you look back to those teams too, a lot of fellas didn’t make it, a lot of names that were expected to make it through to the big time didn’t, probably due to the pressures of the competition that’s in Kilkenny hurling.
“I was probably not one of the names expected to make it, but I was just fortunate to come through some very good minor teams.
“At senior level, though, it’s tough going, very demanding, and it’s constant, day-in-day-out, you can’t afford even to get an injury or an illness because it lets someone else in, someone who’s bursting for his chance.”
That is so true of this current Kilkenny set-up, and Richie Mullally is the latest example of that. Close to an All-Star last year, injured earlier in the season, the wing-back was replaced by Sean Dowling, whose sterling semi-final display in the win over Tipperary would seem to have cemented his All-Ireland place.
“I feel sorry for Richie, a genuine lad, puts in a big effort. He waited a while to get his chance for Kilkenny and when it came he took it, with both hands. He had a fantastic year last year, we had a good understanding down that wing in defence. Then he got injured and Sean (Dowling) has come in, hasn’t put a foot wrong. I’m delighted for Sean too, he’s been knocking around the panel for a couple of years. He’s a perfect example to anyone else on the panel, put his head down and kept working for a couple of years, kept himself in great shape. When his chance came he took it, and that’s what you have to do, you have to be ruthless. That’s been Brian’s motto, you have to grab that jersey and hold onto it, make sure you don’t give it back easy.
“No-one has a divine right to a Kilkenny jersey. When you’re there, do your stuff, earn your jersey. Keep it going and if you do that, you won’t be dropped.”
In his sixth full year for Kilkenny seniors, Michael Kavanagh is still an unbelievably young 24. That’s a long time to hold your place, keep your form, surely there have been periods when he was worried? “At the start of every year you’re kind of sussing out the new talent that’s coming into the panel, what positions they’re playing. You’re hoping there will be more forwards than backs, but I’m sure the forwards are hoping the opposite. What it does is it makes it keen, keeps it healthy for training, makes sure no-one gets complacent. When you have to keep an eye over your shoulder it tests your mettle, brings out the best in your own game, pushes you on, and you know that if you’re not performing well there will be someone else queuing up on the line for your spot. It’s a good way to have it, pushes us all on, keeps us all on our toes. We have a very good panel now, more than 30 players, cover for every position, no worries about putting in any one of those players on any given day.”
THAT LAST point is illustrated by the fact that for last year’s All-Ireland final, sitting at No 29 was an unknown youngster called Tommy Walsh. Unknown outside Kilkenny, that is, but after a year in which he’s lit up the senior inter-county scene with some fantastic scores from midfield and wing-forward, unknown no more. “Tommy Walsh was one of the last men to come onto the panel last year, very late, but he wasn’t too far off getting a place in the final last year. He’s made the breakthrough this year, but really it was only a matter of finding a place somewhere on the team for him. His versatility has proved a real bonus to him, but I think he’ll actually end up back in defence. He’s a fantastic young hurler with a great future ahead of him.”
Could young Tommy possibly end up at No 2, Michael’s position, where he plays so successfully for UCC?
“I don’t think he’s too fond of that spot but he is good there. He played there in the Leinster final last year at U-21 and gave an exhibition. Plays wing-back with the club and I think that’s his favourite position. But everyone in Kilkenny has known about Tommy Walsh since he was U-12, U-14, anyone who was involved in hurling at all were aware of him, there’s great hurling stock in his family. He’s been a joy to watch through the years, people were just waiting for him to grow, fill out a bit. He’s a hardy little boy now, he doesn’t tog out that small anymore, well able to take the knocks. Fantastic striker, hopefully he’ll have a long and injury-free career with Kilkenny.”
THAT’S the 24-year-old veteran talking about his 20-year junior, but there’s no patronising. He’s a steady guy, Kavanagh, appreciates just how lucky he is to be born with the talent he has, in a county where that talent will reap steady reward. “I’m living a dream, but it’s hard to appreciate at the moment. Starting off, I wouldn’t have thought of playing for Kilkenny, of All-Ireland finals, but I’m facing into my fifth now, going for my third winner’s medal. It’s unbelievable, you’d have to pinch yourself at times to really appreciate it. Maybe in a few years, when I move away from the game, look back on our records and that, it will be something we appreciate. Not at the moment. We’re not going to be winning every year, we know that, but you look at fellas like DJ, playing in his eighth All-Ireland; so far he’s won four but he’ll be looking for his fifth. We’re on a roll and it’s important to keep it going, win what we can, maximise it, get as many wins as we can.”
Can they do it again? Can they do what no team has done since the Kilkenny team of 92/93, retain their championship title? Powerful exhalation. “You don’t really know ‘til you get to Croke Park, when it’s really put up to you, you don’t know if the appetite is still there, the hunger. There is a fear with us after the Galway game in 2001, when we lost, that the same thing can happen again. Winning does take it out of you, physically and mentally. You just have to re-group, get back into training, but you really won’t know what you’re like ‘til the real pressure comes on again. We know we have a strong panel, we know if we can open up and really get at the opposition, it will take a hell of a team to beat us.”
Are Cork that kind of team? “Yes, Cork are that kind of a team, they’ve been very impressive this year, unbeaten.” Wait a minute, Michael, ye’ve beaten them, in the League. Without pause he amends, continues: “They’ve been unbeaten in the championship this year. I’ve been to one or two of their games, very impressive, their set-up, they seem to have got things right again this year. They’ve been coming for a couple of years, a lot of those lads have All-Ireland medals, they know what it’s like to win up there in September, which is a great experience to have.
“They’ve picked up some lovely new hurlers, all very good ball-players with a strong physical edge to them as well. I think Donal O’Grady is a good manager who puts in a lot of work behind the scenes I’d say, studying the video, and he’ll have his homework done on us. Very detailed, a thinker about the game. It’s going to be close.”
Close? Greatness beckons.