TJ Reid has no doubt but that Kilkenny would have the number of every other county if they chose to fully embrace the possession game and sweeper systems so much in vogue among so many of their competitors.
This being Kilkenny though, they won’t do that.
The Leinster side, declared league champions with their defeat of Tipperary last Sunday, have clearly tweaked their approach this season under Brian Cody but Reid believes the commentary on that has been overblown.
“I think so. Personally, if we want to play possession games or play sweepers we will beat any team at that because we have talented players that can throw the ball left, right and back, whatever way you want. We can make the ball talk.”
Reid speaks instead about a nuanced adjustment.
Exocets into the forward line still work, after all. Just go back to Walter Walsh’s goal 30 seconds into the second-half at the weekend. A long-distance delivery from Conor Delaney and Walter Walsh did the rest.
Reid paints the picture of a side adding a few new brushstrokes to the canvas, not one tearing it up. There are no hours spent working on drills, no cones littering the pitch on training nights, no hours spent poring over playbooks.
Mike Tyson once opined that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face and Reid made much the same point about the game of hurling, which is more resistant to blue-sky thinking than Gaelic football.
“It’s on instinct,” said Reid. “If you think you are being closed down then you have to get rid of the ball. Simple as. We were never a team of sitting down and having a whiteboard of tactics up in front of us. We go out and work 100%.”
Hurling with your head up, he calls it.
If the situation allows for a defender to run out from the back with the ball, pick out a man and find him short then so be it. Brian Cody and his general staff have planted that seed this season but it needed the players to buy into it. To nourish it and make it grow.
The yield from each game will reflect the opposition involved.
“Each team is going to bring a different style. Wexford like to swarm the middle, half-backs are up the field supporting the half-forwards. Tipperary was more 15 on 15 as such. So, for each game you have to prepare very differently.”
There is an acceptance from the Ballyhale man that Kilkenny may have been slow in adapting to this changing landscape and their championship was truncated last year by defeats to Wexford and Waterford, both strong adherents to the new way of thinking.
Reid talked of a team that was “on the rocks” after a 2017 championship campaign that came and went — unthinkably — without the Cats getting to mark their territory once in Croke Park. Of a group lacking in a collective self-belief.
Two defeats in their opening pair of league games cemented the exterior view that the pillars on which Kilkenny’s success had been founded were crumbling and yet the rebuilding process has been swift and manifestly successful, though yet to be completed.
Not a bad few months work for a side that was viewed as a medium-term transition project — at best — at the competition’s outset and for a manager whose 19 years of unprecedented success proved no buffer against suggestions that he was yesterday’s man.
“Everywhere you turned it was being questioned,” said Reid. “It’s like any good manager, like soccer: When you’re winning they’re all with you and then when you start losing they’re all against you. Now it’s been reversed again, Brian’s the greatest manager now again.”
It’s less than two years since Kilkenny last won a major honour. Nothing for most counties, it was a penance for them but they will seek to atone for last summer’s shortcomings with their faith in themselves fully restored.
“Winning is a great place to be. You can drive off it. Losing the first two games, heads down in the dressing room, question marks again on us and we got back to winning ways. Then we got a taste of it and younger players sensed it so Sunday has scratched an itch that was becoming unbearable and it has exposed a younger generation of Kilkenny players to a state of affairs that had been commonplace for so long.
“Those younger players are performing well, which is great. They are following the leaders and they are doing very well for us, but it will just give them confidence and give them huge belief that they can win.
“You see Mossy Keoghan taking on Padraic Maher and it’s just... That will give Mossy Keoghan massive belief that he can wear that black and amber jersey and he can perform with Kilkenny at the highest standards.”
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