Big Cats

THIS YEAR’S must-see blockbuster movie is 300, a stirring tale of battle set in ancient Greece featuring a tiny band of Spartans taking on a vast, unstoppable force coming out of the east.

Analogies between Kilkenny and the Persian army would, by extension, depict Brian Cody as a tattooed Xerxes, with nose, cheek and eyebrow piercings, so perhaps we’ll smother this metaphor right here before it gets out of hand.

The black and amber cast a long shadow all the same. Are other hurling counties intimidated? Depends, of course. There are more variables at work than an awareness of Kilkenny’s ability to score goals early and often.

CORK

THE first place to start, and the last place you’d hear anyone admitting to nervousness at the prospect of encountering Kilkenny.

That attitude has some empirical evidence to support it: most of the Cork squad have All-Ireland medals won in combat with Kilkenny in 2004, while they need only look at the man standing on the sideline to reinforce the idea that Kilkenny aren’t invincible. Gerald McCarthy book-ended his career with wins over Kilkenny, in 1966 and 1978. Cork are respectful, not fearful.

What worries Cork is Kilkenny’s adaptability and tactical discipline. When players in black and amber withdrew downfield to counter Cork’s puck-out strategy last September it was a gamble by Brian Cody, but his players had the discipline to pull it off. The old boxing adage is that you should never let the other fella do what he wants, and Kilkenny learned that lesson well.

Everyone knows cats are flexible when they have to be, and last September proved it.

TIPPERARY

A very different model in their relationship with Kilkenny. In Babs Keating they also have a manager associated with glory days in Croke Park — and, in particular, with suppressing neighbours east of Mullinahone. But that tradition can be as heavy as it’s helpful. You’d be waiting a long time to hear any son of Knocknagow admit to being intimidated by Kilkenny, but they are. Why else the delight at this year’s league win in Nowlan Park? Go back a few years, to the famous bombardment of Brendan Cummins in Croke Park by a procession of Kilkenny forwards — a sequence ended by Tommy Walsh’s goal. We marvelled at Cummins’ heroics, but the bigger point was Kilkenny’s ruthlessness. Their determination to crush opposition when they get a chance, not just beat them, is what singles them out and Tipperary were the first team to experience that. The irony is that Tipp laid down that template first, in the late fifties and early sixties, so the mindset in the Premier regarding the Cats is now a mirror image of those counties minced in Hells Kitchen 40 years ago.

GALWAY

ACROSS the Shannon, Galway’s view of Kilkenny must be particularly conflicted. They have talent, and All-Ireland final experience from two years ago, but last year’s quarter-final defeat in Thurles sent them backwards. You want mindset? This writer was at the pitch entrance when Galway came onto the field that day, closely followed by Kilkenny. One Kilkenny forward flicked — okay, flaked — his hurley across the wrist of a Galway sub carrying hurleys, sending the sticks flying. It was a signal of intent.

The significance of Kilkenny’s demolition of Galway — don’t be fooled by the late flurry of maroon goals — was the intention to dent their opponents’ confidence going forward, as they’d say in marketing departments. Brian Cody is well aware that on paper Galway are a coming county, with plenty of underage talent to harvest. It’s tougher to make the breakthrough after a chasing like last summer; at the next meeting that memory reawakens once you fall three or four points down, and heads start to drop.

WATERFORD

THEY say good fences make good neighbours, but the open border across the Edmund Rice Bridge breeds a little contempt on one side, and a little frustration on the other. The last time they met in the championship, in the 2004 semi-final, a tired Kilkenny struck early for goals and held on as Paul Flynn discovered his range in the second half.

Those two early goals suggested a team playing the occasion for the first quarter. Though Waterford have learned painfully to play to the final whistle, if they played Kilkenny in a final — with the attendant circus for the previous three weeks — would their concentration hold? The real mental challenge for a Waterford side playing in September would be overcoming those distractions. Taking on the men across the river wouldn’t help, though squeezing out that league final is a definite asset.

OFFALY

THOUGH the relationship with Kilkenny is different for both Offaly and Wexford, the outlook is similarly gloomy. Over the last 25 years Offaly have been a real thorn in the Cats’ paw, and a Kilkenny hurler said some years ago that Offaly were the one county that had taken a lot of dreams away from him. That hasn’t been forgotten in Kilkenny.

Or in Offaly — hence the keenness to keep Brian Whelehan in the mix as long as possible. If they had a presence in the dressing-room who could remember when Kilkenny were as skittish as, well, a cat threatened with the bath, all the better. Now those roles are reversed, and the poverty of Offaly’s challenge is a backhanded tribute to the quality harvested from the ‘86-’87 minor teams. Kilkenny aren’t too bothered by what isn’t their concern — cats are independent-minded, after all (though it’d be interesting if Brian Cody were to make the same journey that Dermot Healy made all those years ago).

WEXFORD

THE history is a touch more complicated in Wexford. They were the last team to beat the Cats in the Leinster championship, but going back further, their tradition is as mixed a blessing as Tipperary’s. When Wexford enjoyed the ascendancy in past decades it was invariably with a powerful, physical team, and that’s no longer the case.

Winning the ‘04 Leinster final against Kilkenny necessitated a tactical rethink — diagonal running and crossfield passing — that didn’t gel with Wexford’s traditional game, but that’s the mental discipline needed to beat Kilkenny. They haven’t replicated that since, which devalues that win to the status of an ambush. There’s surely an exquisite agony in knowing how to beat the Cats — and simply being unable to execute that plan.

CLARE

THE Banner have some heft about them, and it’s not so long since they were able to bully Kilkenny in an All-Ireland semi-final. That wasn’t last year, though, when the Cats struck early for a goal — again — and though Clare rallied by exerting some physical pressure in the full-forward line, Kilkenny kept their heads, thanks to the cushion of that early burst. Cats tend to land on their feet, thanks to instinct, not luck.

LIMERICK

THEY have enough problems getting their best 15 out without worrying about difficult opposition. If they meet Kilkenny the lack of a cutting edge in the forwards won’t trouble the likes of Noel Hickey.

DUBLIN

CREDIT where it’s due for a fine league draw, but that result comes with caveats (missing Kilkenny players, first game back). Tommie Naughton and his colleagues are doing fine work, but when it comes to a hot June day in Croke Park and his players are out waiting for their opponents, will one or two swallow when the black and amber jerseys come up to their positions?

After all, even in 300 the Persians win, and comfortably. But the Greeks rallied to pip them in the qualifier in Plataea. Maybe that’s the lesson there for everyone. With or without the piercings.

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