Jackie Tyrrell tells a tale in his autobiography which hints at just how hard Brian Cody must be pushing his Kilkenny players right now.
The Cats’ first competitive game of 2018 is this evening, against Laois in the Bord na Móna Walsh Cup, and they have some ground to make up after a difficult 12 months.
A league quarter-final defeat to Wexford was followed by their shortest championship campaign in all of Cody’s 19 years in charge.
Bookmakers currently place Kilkenny behind Galway and Tipperary in a group of three, alongside Waterford and Cork, in the race for this year’s All-Ireland.
It’s a long way off the lead billing they’ve typically enjoyed — though long before Cody won any of his 11 All-Irelands as Kilkenny manager, he displayed a remarkable appetite for success.
Kilkenny great Tyrrell recalled one particular game where Cody revealed his sheer disdain for defeat.
“It was clear how much he wanted to win,” he wrote. “When I was in 5th class, we went down to play Ballyhale in a seven-a-side tournament. It was so intense that Brian got stuck into Liam Fennelly. The two were squaring up to one another like two prize-fighters before a big scrap. They didn’t swing any punches but it felt like they were fighting. Brian certainly wasn’t backing down. We all knew who Liam was because he had captained Kilkenny to the 1992 All-Ireland title but he seemed a mortal figure that day in the shadow of the master. I distinctly remember thinking afterwards: ‘That’s why I am afraid of Mr Cody’.”
Michael Fennelly, Liam’s nephew, Shane Prendergast, and Kieran Joyce have retired since last year’s championship but Cody must be pushing the rest harder than ever to atone for the short summer.
Kilkenny selector Derek Lyng acknowledged they have work to do to make up that ground on their rivals. “The perception would be that we are in transition. Then again, in 2013, Cork beat us. I think that was in July as well, the All-Ireland quarter-finals, and the following year we came back strongly. That’s not to say we’re going to win the All-Ireland this year, I’m certainly not saying that. But we have enough confidence in the players we have that we can maximise their potential and that we can do something and be a challenge for everybody else.”
Cody assessed plenty of rookie and fringe talent in 2017 and will have another chance to dig deep into his panel in the pre-season competition. Tonight’s trip to O’Moore Park (7pm) will be followed by a home game in Freshford on Sunday against Kildare, two games Kilkenny will be expected to win with plenty to spare. The tests will increase from next month when the Allianz League begins.
Lyng agrees more teams now are operating at the very top level than when Kilkenny were dominating. “There are certainly a lot more now and a lot of those teams have had strong underage success,” he said.
“We probably haven’t been as successful at U21 level as we would have liked over the last 10 years.”
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