Experience is everything. When Michael Fennelly pulled up in the All-Ireland semi-final replay with Waterford, it looked a serious injury, and so it proved: the Kilkenny midfielder was out for the rest of the season with an achilles tendon problem. Scratch one big name for this weekend.
In the run-up to this weekend’s All-Ireland final, manager Brian Cody spoke about Fennelly: “He had a huge influence on us getting to the final and now he can’t play in the final — that’s tough, that’s cruel and that’s sport, but Michael Fennelly is not available to us — there isn’t Michael Fennellys around the place.
"We’re a panel, we always have been a panel and always will be a panel and the panel takes over and we drive on.”
Sift through the compliments and you get to the nub of Cody’s approach: you move on because you have to.
Those lessons were learned the hard way, because Kilkenny have had to face All-Ireland finals without significant players in the past. Approaching the 2006 decider, they lost a once-in-a-generation player, for instance.
“There was only a couple of minutes left in the (training) game and someone took a shot,” said JJ Delaney at the time.
“I went to the right to try and stop the ball, my left leg stayed in the ground and then I heard a click and I just went over. When you hear a click and the pain comes on in five or six minutes, you know there is something going to be wrong with you. I had a scan on Saturday morning and it confirmed my worst fears.”
Struck by the dreaded cruciate ligament injury, Delaney would miss out on that year’s All-Ireland final win over Cork.
The significance of his loss was indicated by Cody’s comments at the time (“I have never seen a better defender than JJ Delaney, never, ever, he would have been at the very top in any era, any generation,”) but at least the Cats had plenty of depth then.
The previous season, that depth was seriously tested as well, by another serious blow. The week before the All-Ireland quarter-final with Limerick, full-back Noel Hickey had a headache, shivers, and a chest pain.
His sister, a nurse, insisted he go to hospital to have the issue checked out.
Tests revealed a viral infection of the heart which required at least six months rest: season over. Kilkenny would beat Limerick but lose a shoot-out to Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final, when many observers linked their concession of five goals to Hickey’s absence.
Thankfully Hickey recovered to terrorise opposing forwards for many years afterwards, but reorganising your defence so late in the summer is a tall order.
By comparison, earlier this year Kilkenny had to adapt to the departure of Ger Aylward, who enjoyed a break-out season in 2015, with a cruciate injury, but knowing ahead of the beginning of the national league that you’re down a player is different to organising yourself with a couple of weeks to go to the biggest match of the season against your bitterest rivals.
Perhaps the biggest lesson for Kilkenny 2016 was learned by the 2010 version of the stripey men, when the stakes were even bigger than they are this week.
They were hunting an unprecedented five-in-a-row at that stage, but talisman Henry Shefflin had torn his cruciate in the All-Ireland semi-final win over Cork. Key defender John Tennyson was also battling the same injury.
The hype was enormous, given the Cats were on the threshold of five consecutive titles, but when Shefflin’s status was upgraded from absolutely-definitely out to possibly-could-be playing, thanks in no small way to the magic hands of Limerick physio Ger Hartman.
Though Kilkenny management at first denied that Shefflin had a chance, the rumour mill was working overtime.
Following intensive treatment both Shefflin and Tennyson were able to take a full part in a Kilkenny training session on August 26, with the final down for September 5: the session itself would go down in history as probably the best-attended run-of-the-mill training night in GAA history, with an estimated 8,000 people flooding into Nowlan Park to see the players participate, traffic chaos around Kilkenny and expectations soaring after the locals saw Shefflin play.
“To me, it is nearly odds on he’d be playing in the All-Ireland final after watching him last night,” said Irish Examiner hurling columnist Donal O’Grady at the time. “From the time he came on the pitch, he did everything asked of him. He was moving freely left and right. John Tennyson played as well, he did look a small bit rusty but apart from that he was moving well.”
O’Grady was correct. Shefflin and Tennyson both played in that final against Tipperary, but Shefflin only lasted 13 minutes before his injury flared up and he had to be replaced. Tennyson, who had had longer to rehab his injury, finished the game.
The circumstances were extraordinary anyway, with the hunt for a five-in-a-row, and a ravenous Tipperary team keen to make its mark in the other dressing room.
But the Shefflin story had to prove a distraction, particularly the can-he, can’t-he element.
In later years, JJ Delaney would suggest the five-in-a-row bid was more of a distraction than Shefflin’s injury, but in his autobiography Shefflin himself gave an insight into his mindset as that final approached, reflecting that he had seen the training sessions as evenings to survive rather than to hone his skills.
Management also had to deal with a supreme test of their skills: whether to go with their chief talisman or sideline a player after a serious injury, not to mention the concomitant media interest buzzing in the background.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Kilkenny move on quickly with injuries. They learned in the toughest school, after all.
Don’t miss the Irish Examiner GAA Podcast. Daithi Regan, Tadhg O’Connor, Eddie Keher, Eamonn Murphy and PM O’Sullivan join Peter McNamara to discuss the Kilkenny v Tipperary All-Ireland hurling final.
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