Ten years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago and 50 years ago, back when they were kings, this would have been the game of the day for a very obvious reason.
Serial All-Ireland winners, two houses both alike in dignity, all that jazz. Tomorrow it’s the game of the day for an equally obvious and extremely different reason. Fallen giants versus – perhaps – falling giants.
Too early to call it a dry run for the relegation play-off? Patently. This evening’s losers in Croke Park - Dublin or Waterford - will not be sitting easily afterwards and it’s highly possible that by teatime tomorrow no fewer than four counties will be squashed together on two points. Either way there’s a lot of hurling left to be done this month. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The points of similarity and difference between Cork and Kilkenny right now are manifest and manifold, however. Let’s compare and contrast.
Winter has come. They took a bad beating last time out. They’re trying out, because they have to, a bunch of young lads. They don’t possess a hardened core of proven winners onto which they can graft them. They’re not expecting to lift the MacCarthy Cup in September. They’re building in order to be in a better place, an All-Ireland-winning place, a few years down the line. Kieran Kingston is an interregnum manager. Lastly, in terms of the big picture they’ve never recovered from the 2006 All-Ireland final, which signalled the end of their superpower status.
Winter may or may not be coming. They took, in the words of your average Norwegian soccer commentator, a hell of a beating last time out. They’re trying out, because they have to, a bunch of young lads. At least they possess a hardened core of proven winners onto which they can graft them. Their sole purpose in life is to lift the MacCarthy Cup in September and even in their current state of dishevelment they’ll be affronted not to reach the last four. They’re building in order to be in a better place, an All-Ireland-winning place, a few years down the line although they won’t admit this publicly in the way Cork will. Brian Cody will still be the manager then. Lastly, in terms of the big picture they’re still recovering from the 2016 All-Ireland final, which signalled the end of… Which signalled the end of what? Something? Anything? The end of the Cody era? Less loosely, the end of Kilkenny’s greatness under Cody, or at any rate the closing of a ten-year period in which the men in stripes were not only the market leaders but – arguably more relevantly - were seen to be the market leaders and yardstick setters, season after season, regardless of whether they lifted the MacCarthy Cup or not?
Even last year they didn’t stop being Kilkenny and become just another team. One could go so far as to say they were actually at their most Kilkennyesque these past three years. Their resources were dramatically depleted but their aura and focus and sense of self remained fireproof.
The defenestration of Claudio Ranieri, by the by, shines fresh light on Cody’s achievement in keeping his charges hungry through the years of plenty. One suspects our man may not share the outpouring of sympathy for the Italian. (“What’s the fuss? He won one All-Ireland and then allowed things to go to pot..!”) Yet the sense of Kilkenny’s cycle turning towards the dark side of the moon is unmistakeable. The state of permanent transition the county were in since doing the four in a row has accelerated and broadened, the situation exacerbated by an injury list that at this stage borders on the surreal. Cody has been losing players faster than Willie Mullins has been losing Cheltenham contenders.
No Michael Fennelly, which at least was known well in advance. But no Ger Aylward, an All Star the year before last, and no Colin Fennelly, an important component of the forward line since 2011, either. James Maher still chasing fitness. Pat Lyng carried off against Waterford and Walter Walsh gone at half-time in Ennis. Lester Ryan, a handy man to have around the place and particularly at this time of year, appendix-less. That left the likes of Richie Leahy and Liam Blanchfield, making their first and second league starts respectively, to fend for themselves against Clare as best they could.
Keep removing pillars and even the dome of St Peter’s will fall in. And people wonder why the Cusack Park defeat was the biggest on Cody’s watch? Bottom line, it may get worse for Kilkenny before it gets better.
Cody bites hurling = not news. Hurling bites Cody = news. Big news. Every time he’s lost an All-Ireland final or semi-final it’s felt like the end of the story; the end of a chapter anyway. Instead, time after time, it’s turned out to be merely the end of a paragraph. Are there any valid logical reasons why it won’t, in time, be the same again now? There’s one screamingly valid and logical one: the bare look of the larder.
As against that, Cody has never been more impressive in his time at the helm than when husbanding his resources in the last few years. Why should that stop, give or take the current bout of turbulence?
Sooner or later he may have to grasp one particular nettle. A seventh defender.
Sounds heretical, yes, and it would constitute an inversion of that most basic of Cody principles: win your own ball. Nonetheless, for the foreseeable future Kilkenny will be required to embrace an unaccustomed degree of lateral thinking. File “occasional use of a sweeper” under this heading. Anything else would constitute a dereliction of duty.
Look. All adult teams, whatever their grade, should spend some time rehearsing how to play with, and against, seven defenders and five forwards. It’s sensible.
It’s educational. It heightens player awareness. They’ll have to do so during the course of a game at some stage; come that day it’s preferable they don’t end up hitting the ball to the other crowd’s extra man, a la Galway 1986. Or, come to think of it, a la Kilkenny against Cork in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final when, following Henry Shefflin’s dismissal, they spent the second half lamping the ball straight at Shane O’Neill.
Tomorrow’s hosts were outworked by Tipperary last September and, on their manager’s admission, by Clare last month. They won’t be outworked here.
As a consequence it’s up to Kieran Kingston to put out a team that will perform, as he – and they – did at Pairc Uí Rinn for the reverse fixture last season.
Depending on where Paul Murphy is deployed there could be room for Shane Kingston to flourish.
The youngster’s penchant for putting his head down and going straight for goal is bracing to behold and potentially of vast long-term import for his county. Cork don’t need another Alan Cadogan, which is not to dismiss Cadogan’s virtues in the slightest.
There can never be any dismissing a man who’s good for three or four points a game – the supreme virtue for a forward. All the same, in view of their recent non-goalscoring history Cork require Cadogan’s antonym rather than his synonym.
Come summer Kilkenny, assuming a reasonable proportion of their injuries clear up, will be a different proposition to their current iteration. Come summer Cork are unlikely to be. The meeting of the pair still makes for the match of the day. But this isn’t 1977. Or even 2007.
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