Kilkenny again validate timeworn ‘work and talent’ theory

Perhaps as the two of them relaxed some evening in Cambridge, Seamus Heaney enlightened Derek Walcott about hurling and Croke Park and what happens when the known universe narrows into a man standing over a sideline cut with time running out on another season.

Kilkenny again validate timeworn ‘work and talent’ theory

Perhaps as the two of them relaxed some evening in Cambridge, Seamus Heaney enlightened Derek Walcott about hurling and Croke Park and what happens when the known universe narrows into a man standing over a sideline cut with time running out on another season.

How else to explain Walcott’s lines about so many taking thunder for granted, asking “how common is the lightning”? Is there another context that suits?

Limerick and Kilkenny fought themselves to a standstill in the All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park on Saturday evening, but when the gunsmoke cleared, Kilkenny were the last men standing.

How common is the lightning, indeed.

The video of Saturday night’s game will be like a bottle of cod liver oil in the Limerick cupboard all winter, a necessary evil every time it’s used, but the spoon has to come out of the drawer if they’re to learn.

The defeat of the All-Ireland champions wasn’t a matter of systems failure as much as errors accumulating over and over.

The wides, the puck-outs that were turned over, Declan Hannon’s withdrawal at half-time: the collective effect is enough to make supporters in green and white groan and further reinforces the notion of a hex on the Munster champions when it comes to All-Ireland semi-finals.

Nickie Quaid even had issues with his contact lens. It was that kind of day for them.

As expected, Limerick made all the confident noises you’d expect last week about handling the lay-off since their Munster final victory, but a quick look at the scoring sequence shows the All-Ireland champions were slow to the pace of the game.

On 11 minutes they were six points to one behind; just three minutes later they were 1-8 to 0-2 in arrears.

That goal came on foot of a Cian Lynch wide, with Eoin Murphy booming the puck-out down to the far end, where Colin Fennelly rampaged through — the proverbial four-point swing.

None of this is to take away from Kilkenny, something which needs to be stressed. The gap between the Munster final and yesterday’s semi-final didn’t win the game for the Leinster side: their own intensity and application did.

Should we finesse that term a little further, by the way? Everyone has admired Limerick’s power in the middle third over the last 18 months, but while Kilkenny may not show that strength overtly - those stripey jerseys don’t show off the biceps too well - the appetite for work has and remains non-negotiable in Kilkenny.

In the first half, in particular, they went after Limerick puck-outs and turned the All-Ireland champions over; in injury-time, when Limerick sub David Reidy cracked in a shot which Eoin Murphy saved, the Kilkenny defenders were there in numbers to shepherd the rebound out for a 65. The clock doesn’t matter. The effort does.

In one sense these references to work rate and intensity seem almost boilerplate, a hackneyed description of a team and attitude which has become calcified through overuse.

For years everyone with even a passing interest in the game tried to dig a little deeper, to ferret out some clue — some key fact — which would lead to a unified theory of Kilkenny’s success.

In fact, those clues have been hiding in plain sight all along. A close inspection shows that for two decades now Brian Cody has been spilling his managerial secrets to all and sundry.

You need only ask and you shall be told.

Outside countless dressing-room doors, in a thousand chilly corridor settings, the Kilkenny manager has referred to spirit and application, to challenge and to application, to working and to fronting up - usually delivered with the air of a man who seems mildly surprised that such prerequisites need to be spelt out.

Clearly they do, however. Can every manager take that application for granted? Can every player presume that about every team-mate?

If you doubt me, consider TJ Reid’s words afterwards: “We missed this so much. Last time we were here was 2016. Today was just about pure savage workrate from all the players, subs and everyone.

"We didn’t score as much as we’d have liked to, but it was about the doggedness, the effort, the hooks, the blocks, the flicks, the catches.

“They’re (Limerick) All-Ireland champions. If you don’t outwork them, they’re going to beat you on the scoreboard.

The first 15 minutes, we hurled very well, probably got a little tired for the next 15 minutes. Second half, we went five points ahead and Shane Dowling got a goal to get back again. We knew it was going to be a massive battle and it was. For me, for the panel of players, management and Kilkenny, back in an All-Ireland in three weeks time. Can’t wait.

There you have it. The doggedness. The effort. The hooks. The blocks. The flicks. The catches.

The only possible downside to Kilkenny’s victory was the validation of a million inspirational posters (you know, the ones with ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ in capitals under a soaring, distracted eagle). On Noreside they’ll take that.

Then there was the 65 that wasn’t, a brush fire which kindled within minutes of the final whistle.

Darragh O’Donovan dropped a sideline in the danger area in the 74th minute, and as the sliotar whistled toward the end line, Kilkenny’s Cillian Buckley certainly seemed to make contact with the ball.

Limerick’s Diarmaid Byrnes had pointed a 65 moments earlier; would he have put another one over the bar? We’ll never know.

However, your correspondent detected some grumbling — from the southeast, specifically — about the officials’ inability to catch that possible interaction, particularly as referee Alan Kelly was the man responsible last year when Tipperary were notoriously awarded a ‘ghost goal’ in their Munster championship clash with Waterford.

Getting an All-Ireland semi-final to referee is a fair indication of the restoration of faith in an official, but surely performing the most basic duties of an umpire isn’t too tall an order.

Counting both umpires, referee and linesman on the Cusack Stand side, that makes four sets of eyes. None of them could pick it up?

To give him his due, Kelly spotted Limerick’s first-half penalty.

The sceptics who doubted whether or not it should have been awarded should get in touch about the correct tackling technique when a defender has no hurley and two hands around his opponent.

Whether Gillane was outside the 20-metre line when he made contact with his penalty, however, looked far less clear-cut.

Perhaps that balances out the 65 Limerick weren’t awarded.

Other highlights of the game included Shane Dowling’s goal, batted home from a long way out. (Why are there so many batted goals lately, by the way? Is it something to do with the cricket?)

And then there was the display from Adrian Mullen. The languid youngster from Ballyhale ended the day with four points from play, more than any of his teammates - a return made all the more impressive by the fact that he’s still eligible to play U20 for the county.

(Interesting subplot: Kilkenny face Cork in the All-Ireland U20 hurling semi-final in the coming days. Will they risk one of their key seniors in the underage game?)

Mullen’s last point of the day, with 11 minutes left on the clock, pushed his side four ahead and was his best. Confronted by a wall of green, he improvised a dinked shot which carried over the bar.

It showed class in the wrists but can’t be divorced from Mullen’s willingness to put in a shift alongside his colleagues.

With another team, the youngster might be carried as a scorer and spared the graft, but when the opposition have the ball every Kilkenny player is an Indian, not a chief.

Are the stars now aligning nicely for Kilkenny? Walter Walsh is healthier, and Cillian Buckley was able for action yesterday.

Young players like Mullen, John Donnelly, Bill Sheehan and Huw Lawlor now gain the golden experience of an All-Ireland final early in their careers.

Limerick already have that experience and will go again, but a cold accounting will remind them how fine the margins are.

Last year against Kilkenny, Cork, and Galway they were on the right side; their opening quarter on Saturday left them too much to do.

That’s 2020. In both senses.

For this year, should we be surprised by Kilkenny’s return? Derek Walcott said awe was a casualty of our age — that it had been lost to our time.

So many people have seen everything, said Walcott; so many people can predict.

Not quite everything has been seen. And by no means was everything predicted.

Dalo's Hurling Podcast: Tipperary's defiance. Will Davy Fitz stay on? Kilkenny tactics. Cody's greatest semi-final victory?

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