NINE All-Ireland final appearances with Kilkenny from 1964 to 1975, five times a winner; two National League medals, six Railway Cups, two All-Star awards, hurler-of-the-year in 1974; add in three further All-Ireland senior titles as Kilkenny manager, a lifetime of involvement in hurling at every level of the game for club and county that continues to this day, and inarguably, you have in Pat Henderson a genuine hurling authority.
When it’s suggested to him then that the current Kilkenny team deserves to be ranked with the all-time greats, his opinion bears repeating. “For consistency there’s absolutely no doubt about that they’ve stayed the pace very well, they’ve kept their focus very well, have never gone ahead of themselves.
“They are a very professional team, you’d have to give them 100% for that.”
The basis for such recognition from a man recognised as one of the all-time great centre backs is simple. Since 1998, Kilkenny have won every Leinster title bar one (shocked by Wexford in the semi-final of 2004), since 2000 they have appeared in five All-Ireland finals, winning four, during which time they have also won the National League on four occasions, three times achieving the league/championship double (including last year). Enough, perhaps, to earn the accolade as the greatest team ever? Here, Pat pauses.
“I think it’s unfair to compare teams of different eras. Circumstances are different, the style of play is different, the rules are different. I played in two distinct eras, if you like. I started when teams lined up in the middle of the field, when you had the third-man tackle. So how do you compare that era with what you see today? It is a different game entirely. The game has moved on, some say for the better, some say not — I’m sure if you’re a Tipperary-man you’d love to go back to the old style of hard hitting, and maybe they’re right!”
What does Pat Henderson say?
“I think the game has developed for the better, as a spectacle. In the latter years of our era, in the 70s, we were getting there, the development of coaching was coming to the fore through Tommy Maher, and fellas like that. The foundation for the present success was laid in that era. Brian Cody was a student of that — we developed it a bit more in the early 80s (Pat coached Kilkenny to All-Ireland success those two years, over Cork), but it has moved on again significantly since then.”
In all the talk about the fact that football isn’t really a factor in Kilkenny, thus not a great distraction, what a lot of people miss is that in terms of population, Kilkenny is one of the smallest counties in the country. According to Pat, however, this has its compensations.
“I come from a small club, Johnstown, and I know from that experience that the conversion rate is much greater than in bigger clubs. You might have six or seven young lads starting national school every year. They must get three out of every four of those lads to hurl, and if they don’t, the club is in trouble. Go into the big towns, you’ll have hundreds starting, and if they get 10% of those, they’re doing well. That’s the difference. You take a lad in a small club who’s not very good at underage but he’s keen; he’ll get his place up along and might turn out to be a very good club player, even an inter-county player. In the bigger club he’d have been lost very early. The same applies at county level in Kilkenny, and maybe that’s why we’re so successful. A young fella in Kilkenny, if he’s talented and puts in the effort, there’s a good chance he’ll wear the black-and-amber; in Cork, because there are so many clubs, that chance is much reduced. In Kilkenny everyone can relate to someone who’s playing with the county, they’re next-door, top county players are from virtually every village and town.”
Numbers are not a problem then, it’s conversion rate. In Carlow, Westmeath, Kildare, Wicklow, Laois, Pat sees potential for teams to make the big breakthrough, as long as they are properly developed. Offaly, Wexford, Dublin present a different proposition.
“There’s nothing wrong with Carlow hurling, with Laois — small bases but good quality hurling being played. The same in Westmeath, in Kildare, in Wicklow.
“With the others, I think Offaly and Wexford are on the way back, I wouldn’t be too worried about that. Wexford’s biggest problem is inconsistency. Offaly have not had that problem; when they’ve had the players they’ve been competitive — their problem is the smaller base, trying to bring fellas through on a consistent basis. They will come again.”
And Dublin? “I don’t know what’s going to happen in Dublin. Football is as dominant there as hurling is in Kilkenny, but it’s back to population and conversion rate — how many minors will make it through to senior? There’s a lot of work being done on the coaching end, and hopefully they can start holding the top players. If they do, they’ll be a force.”
What of this Sunday, can he see Wexford competing with Kilkenny?
“I think they will. It’s a banana skin for Kilkenny. They’re after playing Wexford in the league semi-final, playing them in the Leinster final, beat the stuffing out of them in the first 20 minutes each time. If it doesn’t happen in the first 20 on Sunday, Wexford will get confidence, especially after their win over Tipperary last week.
“If Wexford can get a run on Kilkenny it could go right down to the wire, but I’d still expect Kilkenny to win, even if it’s not by a big score this time.”
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