THOMOND Park night with a twist. Munster’s rugby cathedral had its beaming floodlights and immaculate playing surface on Thursday night, but the stands and pitch were quiet.
Instead the focus was underneath the West Stand, where 560 people were sardined in a conference room for the 2008 BDO Get BACk Challenge Sports Coaching Seminar.
The origins of the Get BACk Challenge date back to two years ago, when a group of Limerick businessmen established a body to fund cancer care and promote sports schemes for disadvantaged groups within the city. To date they have totted up €300,000, with Thursday’s coaching seminar another strand of their scheme. Four speakers addressed the masses, including Irish Olympic nutritionist Siobhán Madigan, DCU Professor Niall Moyna and new Munster boss Tony McGahan.
Finally, there was the apposite sight of a Brian Cody lecture to wrap up proceedings.
The James Stephens man has conquered many sports stadia during his career but this was his first stab at storming Thomond. He took to the podium and delivered a 30-minute insight into what makes hurling’s most successful manager tick. He chose squad spirit as a starting ground.
“To me the most important ingredient by far for any team if you want to be successful, is what I call spirit. For a team with spirit, essentially the sky is the limit. When I came into the job I had short-term ambitions to be successful but I remember at the time saying my ambition was to build a spirit within the whole hurling fraternity in Kilkenny. I wanted to take the job and at the end of it, leave it in a better state.”
But in Cody’s mind, the notion of spirit is not just restricted to the players and management. After a few weeks marred by friction between players and county boards, Cody proffered a different thinking.
“I find it strange when I see problems between county boards and players and management teams. I don’t think it needs to be the case. Everybody should be working for the one goal. That’s what everybody wants, so it’s much easier to work together to achieve it rather than work against each other.
“I wanted that spirit in the various hurling groups in Kilkenny. It’s very important to have that with the county board, the clubs, the underage structures and the supporters. That’s what I set out to achieve. I’m positively certain looking back on the years I’ve been there that it’s that spirit which has resulted in our success.”
If spirit is one word that Cody burns into the Kilkenny psyche, then respect is its twin.
“Respect going in all various ways, I couldn’t emphasise it enough. I was very conscious going into the job that I had to earn that respect. I was going in there without being a successful manager with my club. I’d failed to win a county championship and it had broken my heart. I was very aware that I had to earn the respect of everyone involved. There’s no fancy way, it’s about rolling up your sleeves and setting standards for everyone.”
Then it was time to start debunking some sporting myths, starting with the damaging effect of squad rotation.
“There’s no such thing as a certain player having to play. A lot of people talk about a settled team. But I don’t believe in that at all. I believe absolutely in a settled spirit but I don’t mind what players make up that team. I believe every player in our panel should know his job and can step in at any time. That means every player feels he has the opportunity to play.”
THE best example Cody could use was to reflect on the 2006 All-Ireland final. After a stirring success over Cork, James McGarry, John Tennyson and James Ryall had plenty reason to be content. But when Kilkenny defeated Limerick the following September, that trio were kicking their heels on the bench. Still they bought into the Cody concept of Kilkenny and eschewed the sulking, prima donna personas.
“Everyone would have expected them to play the following year and they were good enough to play. But what was most encouraging for me was the three players who were left out, what roles they took on in the dressing-room. The spirit was kept intact, those players didn’t sulk or walk away. They know the way we work and continued to train to the maximum.”
Mention of training stirs those tall tales about flying limbs in Nowlan Park. Cody does his best to deflect that image but his views on training are unwavering.
“Training is crucial. I believe a training pitch should be a centre of excellence, where only the absolute maximum is tolerated, allowed and expected. If you go to an All-Ireland final and experience an intensity that you haven’t in training, I don’t believe you are prepared. The media go on about our sessions but I’m sure it goes on in other counties as well. Our sessions are genuine and they are real. But they’re very much driven by the players, who demand a lot from themselves.”
Showering the players with bouquets is all well and good, but what of the overseer of their fortunes. Throughout a ten-season tenure that has generated six All-Ireland crowns, Cody has created a fixed definition of his role.
“To be without ego is very important in your dressing-room. There’s no point in me going around thinking I’m the manager, I’m the boss. I couldn’t emphasise enough the importance of all the backroom team to that. The important thing for me was to have confidence in them and let them get on with their job.
“It’s important that the players see that the buck stops with me. It’s very important not to be afraid to make those hard calls and that players see that. I swore when I got the job that I’d go with my gut instinct. That’s the same for any manager.”
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