Take Richie Hogan, for instance. You’re top scorer in the league final, with 1-10, 100% accuracy from play and placed balls – having been handed that duty after Henry Shefflin is sent to the GAA version of the sin-bin; you are man-of-the-match after a rip-roaring contest that had hurling fans purring; the next competitive match for Kilkenny is the Leinster semi-final against Galway and your hopes have got to be high; you tog out, and you’re handed the number 25 shirt. What gives?
“Everyone wants to play but I’m realistic enough to know that you earn your championship spot, and obviously I didn’t,” he said. “That gives a great confidence in a way, that you know there’s no favouritism, no-one guaranteed places. The boys who started against Galway aren’t guaranteed places for the Leinster final either, it’s the best 15 every day and the next 15 offers full support, and if they do get a few minutes they hope they won’t let anyone down, that they’ll play at the required level of intensity.”
Hogan did get his few minutes against Galway, coming on for Eddie Brennan in the 62nd minute, the first forward introduced by manager Brian Cody. That surely was consolation, an indication of how close he is to a starting position. Was there any earlier consolation, however, a fatherly arm around the shoulder from Cody before the team was announced?
“No,” says Richie, “There’s no need, there’s no expectation there on my side. We go into the dressing room, you prepare as though you’re going to be on the starting 15; you’re disappointed for five minutes if you’re not but there’s no shock, no begrudgery. Who am I to say someone else should have been left off? I don’t think that kind of expectation is there with anyone in the panel.”
Just as well that there isn’t. It’s not just the veterans like Henry Shefflin, Eddie Brennan, Martin Comerford, Eoin Larkin, Aiden Fogarty and now Richie Power that Richie Hogan is trying to upstage – he himself is being pushed by the likes of TJ Reid, who also came on against Galway and proceeded to bomb over a spectacular point, by Michael Grace, by Willie O’Dwyer, etc, an indicator of the strength in depth in this panel, an indicator also of why this team is on the cusp of history.
Kilkenny are going for their 11th title in the last 12 years. They are hot favourites and also hot favourites to retain their All-Ireland crown and thus complete the four-in-a-row, a feat done just once before in hurling, by Cork in the early 40s.
“Already, even if they fail in that quest, this team is being spoken of as being the greatest of all time. As one of the younger brigade (though he’s a fully qualified national teacher – in search of a school in the Dublin area, be it noted – he’s still U-21 this season), a late-comer to the group, has he ever heard such talk, even whispered, in the dressing room?
“No!” he says, scornfully, “And if ever there is, it would probably be the finish of us. There’s 35 in the group, those are the only opinions that matter and that ever will matter, and we never take anything for granted; it’s always the next game.”
It’s a superb attitude typical of all in the Kilkenny panel. No-one takes anything for granted when it comes to getting a starting jersey. Thus it is that this Sunday, Hogan expects nothing less than a full-tilt championship challenge from Dublin.
“Being so young I’m more used to this than most. I’ve played against Dublin in Leinster finals at minor, colleges, U-21, so it won’t be that unfamiliar to me. We’d meet in championship a lot of the time anyway, hopefully their supporters will pack the place out of it. That would be fantastic, I can’t think of anything better than playing a Leinster final in front of 80,000.
“I would know a few of them, Tom Brady, Johnny McCaffrey, a couple of others, fine hurlers. I’d appreciate how good they are, having played with and against them so often.”
One of those games was the regular-round league match in Nowlan Park in April, a hard-earned two-point win for the Cats, and a taste, perhaps, of what’s in store this Sunday. “As a league game it was draining,” Hogan remembers, “A lot of running involved. This will be a step higher, but as league games go, that was one of the toughest we had all year. I think they had seven backs, or three midfielders, but they made it very hard. They’ve had a great league, a great Leinster championship so far – hopefully we can put an end to it.”