Cats can absorb body blows

Mickey Harte found it out in 2006. Jack O’Connor discovered it in 2010.

Conor Counihan realised it last summer. Each time an All-Ireland-winning football manager saw their attempts to retain the title severely hampered by the loss of key players through injury or suspension.

Strength in depth is crucial for all inter-county squads, yet once the summer showdowns in Croke Park arrive, that inevitable draining of first-team regulars often become sunsustainable.

It’s something Brian Cody may ponder following the news that Michael Fennelly faces a 10-week spell on the sidelines after fracturing his ankle in last Sunday’s league final against Cork.

The Ballyhale Shamrocks midfield powerhouse joins a list of celebrated talents on the Cats treatment table, with Noel Hickey, Michael Rice, Henry Shefflin, Aidan Fogarty and Richie Power all sidelined.

With a compiled total of 37 All-Ireland senior medals and 19 All Star awards between them, it’s a sizeable amount of experience and stature for any team to be stripped of.

Yet while it’s true no team can afford to keep losing blue-chip players, no team also has Kilkenny’s capacity to cope with those losses. Last Sunday’s triumph in Semple Stadium provided positive offshoots in that regard for Kilkenny. For starters there was evidence that the 2008 All-Ireland U21-winning team can have an increasing influence on the make-up of the 2012 senior side.

Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly and TJ Reid are poised to assume leadership roles, carrying the scoring burden in attack. Paddy Hogan and Matthew Ruth seem determined to spend more life on the pitch than on the bench. And 2011 UL Fitzgibbon Cup-winning captain Kieran Joyce looks likely to push hard for more game time in the championship.

The emergence of Dicksboro’s Cillian Buckley is an interesting case. The increasing demands for physicality in modern hurling would appear to be an impediment to players jumping immediately from the minor ranks to senior level. There will always be prodigies like Joe Canning and Noel McGrath but the general rule of thumb appears to be that an apprenticeship must be served.

From Kilkenny’s triumphant team last September, Michael Fennelly, Richie Power and Richie Hogan were amongst those who could tell salient tales about having to bide their time before starting berths were secured.

Buckley is still in the fledgling stage of his senior career but he has made a fine start. The league has been pockmarked with dashing displays from newcomers like Conor Lehane, Danny Sutcliffe and Niall Burke. Buckley may not have produced dazzling scoring returns but he has made a big impact. His assured displays betray the fact that in April 2011 he was part of the St Kieran’s side winning the Croke Cup in Semple Stadium and just over 12 months later he was back there winning the league with the Cats.

Richie Doyle, the defensive lynchpin on the Kilkenny minor sides that won the All-Ireland final in 2008 and lost the All-Ireland final in 2009, has had to wait a little longer. But the lessons he absorbed as a panellist last year have assisted him this year. He was outstanding at left half-back last Sunday, contributing handsomely to a stellar defensive effort. From junior club Barrow Rangers, the Carlow IT student is climbing the ladder quickly.

There is also hope that come Jun 23, they will be able to call on the services of Shefflin, Rice and Power for their Leinster semi-final. And even if they are shorn of stars, they will still remain the team to beat.


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