‘We’re not particularly tactical’

Brian Cody doesn’t focus too much on his future with Kilkenny – but he’s always ready to look to the past and learn from it. He spoke to DIARMUID O’FLYNN

REMEMBER the good old days, when hurling training consisted of a bit of a warm-up before the main event, a no-holds-barred practice match between two hand-picked teams? The trainer – because that’s all there was in those days, none of this manager/coach confusion – stood in the middle of it all with whistle lost in his calloused fist and allowed the game to flow, intervening only when things got seriously out of hand.

The first-choice forwards would be pitted against the first-choice backs, but all those on the edge of selection would be given their opportunity at some stage or another and boy, did they add some steam to the mix! Nothing and no one was spared, individual battles took place in every corner, and as ash clashed and timber crashed, the leather fairly flew up and down the field. Come Sunday, come any big championship day, those boys would be ready, because nowhere is competition more fierce than among friends. Remember too when the muscle-building drink for hurlers was milk, good old-fashioned cow-juice, with all its natural ingredients?

Now, decades of scientific research has seen massive advances in training methods and in nutrition for all athletes, and hurling has benefited from those advances. Speed, agility and quickness (SAQ), those are the buzzwords now as teams – even at club level – raise the bar every season, hurlers becoming fitter, faster, stronger than ever before, with a whole host of specially developed pre-hydration and recovery drinks on offer, the old ways lost, lost forever. Or are they?

For the past 11 seasons Brian Cody has presided over the most successful period ever in Kilkenny hurling and they’ve had a few. Five National Hurling League titles, six All-Irelands, 10 Leinster crowns (2004 the only year they didn’t win).

On Sunday, Kilkenny will be trying to do what only one hurling team has ever done before, four-in-a-row of All-Ireland titles. Over those 11 seasons, under Brian, Kilkenny have evolved, improved, taken all the scientific advances on board; through all that time, however, two things have remained constant, two throw-back elements – the practice matches, and milk. Not the milk of the old days, admittedly– warm, unpasteurised, fresh from the cow – but a new fortified version developed by their sponsors, Glanbia, and all the better for that. But, the practice matches?

“The best preparation for big matches is training matches, that’s key to the whole thing. That’s the way it was 30, 40 years ago, and the basics of the game haven’t changed in the meantime – I certainly wouldn't change that preparation.” It’s not that the Kilkenny lads don’t do all the other stuff, and fitness is a hallmark of their game, the ability to play the full 70 minutes – plus whatever is added on – at full throttle. But those games at the end of every session in Nowlan Park are now the stuff of legend. And we’re not talking here about tiddly games, short encounters punctuated by the whistle, everything held up as some guy is pulled up for some error or other. They are full-blooded affairs, everyone busting a gut to impress the man in the middle, and they last a while, “About 40 minutes, I’d say,” reckons Brian, “A good chunk of the training session anyway.”

Old-fashioned it may be but it works, and there’s a lesson there, surely, for all hurling trainers to follow. Certainly Tipperary, the side Kilkenny will face in Sunday’s All-Ireland final, have taken their lead from Kilkenny this year, and time and again the players have referred to the intensity of the practice matches that now form an integral part of Liam Sheedy’s regime.

There is other training to be done, obviously, individualised fitness programmes that in some cases – for those prone to putting on weight very easily – will carry on right through the winter; the benefits of that training is obvious also in this current Kilkenny side, a lean machine if ever there was one, not a single outfield player carrying any excess poundage. A major part of the new regime is nutrition, making sure that fellas are not undoing all the good work in the gym and on the field with bad eating habits. It’s not an area that Brian would have been very familiar with in his own playing days as a sterling full-back with Kilkenny, back in the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s not anything he worries about now.

“Noreen Roche has been our nutritionist since the year before I started and has been there every year since – I wouldn’t dream of interfering with what she does. She’s extremely professional, instructs the lads in proper diet and proper nutrition, but it’s all very practical. We have Supermilk supplied by Glanbia, very good sponsors, and they’re in the nutrition game, but they also take other specialised drinks. The players are very committed, look after themselves very well anyway, but what county player doesn’t?”

There is one other element, however, where hurling has changed immensely in the last few years, an area where Kilkenny have followed – tactics. Or, again, have they?

A few years ago Brian, when quizzed on the subject, was quoted as saying, dismissively, something along the lines of ‘Kilkenny don’t do tactics’.

Since their All-Ireland win over Cork in 2006, a win that ended Cork’s effort at three-in-a-row and kicked off Kilkenny’s, the consensus among most observers is that Kilkenny, in an effort to combat what had become a very successful and very tactical Cork side, had changed that particular tune. Isn't that so, Brian?

“In what way?” he asks. Well, in the way the half-backs drop back for opposition puck-outs, for starters, squeezing the space, nullifying all the dummy runs of the opposition.

“That’s not practised,” he counters, “that’s just players aware of what’s happening, thinking on their feet, reacting accordingly. All sport is tactical to some extent but we’re not particularly tactical; we don't spend a huge amount of time dealing with the opposition, we just prepare to play our own game. If we did want to be tactical we’d be closing doors in training, having private sessions, hiding stuff – we don't ever do that.”

SO, THEN, how to explain Kilkenny’s unprecedented success these days, and not just the senior side either, under Brian Cody; last year, for the first time in their storied history, Kilkenny won every championship that was to be won – minor, U-21, intermediate, senior, the whole kit and caboodle ending up in the Cat collection. If it’s not rocket science, if Cody isn’t in fact at home every winter conjuring up new training methods, new tactics, new approaches, what is his secret?

What is he doing that’s so right, year after year? This one causes him pause: “I don’t know, I just keep on doing what I’ve always been doing. I haven’t changed very much and I’ve said many times, I don’t ever envisage that changing. The biggest thing for me, working with any group, is the spirit within that group; if that’s strong – and it is, in Kilkenny – and as long as it remains intact, that, for me, is the thing I’d always be most aware of.”

Well, the spirit is certainly intact, as is that other critical element, hunger, and here, Brian Cody certainly comes into his own – with Kilkenny, there is never any complacency, ever.

“Well it’s my responsibility to make sure that everything is right with the team, and if fellas were to start thinking that this is easy, simple, then that would be dangerous; of course I have to very vigilant on that, as manager of the team, but the reality is that they are a terrifically committed bunch of players, as are those who are even trying to get into the panel. They are all very genuine, terrific competitors. Championship ends in September, there’s an off-season, then they come back in the spring and they just love that, coming back, starting all over again.

“But I believe that’s the case all over the country; whether fellas are preparing for the McCarthy Cup, the Christy Ring, the Nicky Rackard or the Lory Meagher, fellas are all interested in getting themselves fit. I see that all over the country, the passion for hurling is everywhere, people putting in that work at schools and club level – outstanding people. They’re the ones ensuring that hurling stays on top. I genuinely can’t see any difference between our lads here and lads anywhere else – they’re all just straightforward lads.”

Straightforward lads, with a straightforward leader. Later this year Brian Cody will be bringing out a book, a mix of autobiography and coaching manual, with the emphasis on the former; with the All-Ireland final yet to be played, with history, perhaps, to be made, one chapter remains to be written. Will it also be the final chapter for Brian Cody and Kilkenny?

“At the end of every year, I always say – I don’t know what’s happening next. I haven’t even considered it yet, my focus now is on the All-Ireland final and that will consume my thoughts completely for the next week – as far as I’m concerned, next year doesn’t even exist.”


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