2018 may prove to be Brian Cody’s biggest challenge

I was driving home from an underage coaching day in Kilmacud Crokes in Dublin last Saturday when a friend texted me. “Some Walsh Cup final in Nowlan Park,” he said. “It sounds like an epic.”

2018 may prove to be Brian Cody’s biggest challenge

I didn’t know Brian Cody had been sent to the stand by that stage but I soon found out when I started twisting the radio dial before eventually locating South East Radio.

Billy Byrne was on live co-commentary so the Wexford slant was coming in hot and heavy. It was some craic coming down the M7. It definitely shortened the journey.

When I got home, I texted my buddy back. “An epic alright, some bite building between Cody & Fitzy for the next few months.”

The general consensus after a game that intense is that it’s better than five training sessions. It might be long term but with Cork and Waterford coming down the tracks for Kilkenny and Wexford this weekend, you’d wonder if it was.

Local rivalry and bragging rights always ignites the flame and stirs the pot but sustaining that kind of intensity is bound to be one of the key talking points of this upcoming league campaign.

The question everyone is asking is — with the hectic spring schedule, combined with the round-robin championship format — will the league be devalued? Is the competition now almost an irrelevance? The bottom line is that hurling has two leagues now, and one is vastly more important than the other.

If you assess it on those terms, taking into account the heat and pressure coming in May and June, the kitchen is bound to be a lot cooler this spring than it has been in recent years. You can’t keep the pot simmering for that long anymore.

Of course there is a flipside to this argument. In Clare, we were nearly made famous for a league semi-final 20 years ago now against Cork, when Cork bate the tar out of us and the general assumption afterwards was that Ger Loughnane had us throw the game.

The story grew legs when we easily brushed Cork aside in the championship two months later but, in total honesty, we didn’t set out to lose that game. Ger hadn’t us as wound up as usual. We were just off the pace and, at the time, when Clare weren’t at the right mental and physical pitch, we were always liable to be as flat as glass.

I’ll never forget marking Seanie McGrath that day and he taking off like a hare and me trying to chase him like an auld slow greyhound. I was thinking, ‘There’s 25,000 people here, and he’ll make me look like a holy show.’

With most big games live on TV now, and with the matches further dissected to within an inch of their lives on TV, radio, Twitter, and you name it, no player wants to bring that level of scrutiny down on him for a below-par display. You can’t even get a challenge match played on the quiet now because someone, somewhere, always has an iPhone.

Look even at the interest, and discussion, triggered by the Walsh Cup final last weekend? Teams will still want to win. Players will want to perform. Managers won’t want serial defeat and the pressure that will bring.

Cody has never entertained the notion of losing games and he certainly hasn’t lost any of his fire in his 20th season. If anything, he seems more pumped up than ever.

We were all locked on to the recent Micko documentary on RTÉ but, and it’s not hurling bias, Cody is, in my opinion, the greatest manager in GAA history. Micko’s achievements with Kildare and Laois, and the impact those famine-ending successes had on those counties, took him to another level but, Cody’s 10 All-Irelands in 16 years ends all arguments as far as I’m concerned.

To win another would undoubtedly be his greatest achievement but that target is also going to be Cody’s biggest challenge.

I was listening to Eddie Brennan on radio the other evening and he said that Kilkenny just haven’t produced a marquee forward since Richie Hogan. And he’s right, although perhaps big John Donnelly of DCU might provide a surprising lift.

With Colin Fennelly and Paul Murphy on overseas army duty, and Michael Fennelly retired, you’d imagine that this league will be a struggle for Kilkenny. Cody won’t think so. Kilkenny will still fight on their backs to win every game but anything other than a Cork victory this evening in Páirc Uí Chaoimh would actually ask more questions of Cork than Kilkenny.

This time last year, we were predicting very little from Cork but the young players brought a new swagger and confidence to the team and a brilliant Munster title success has put them on a much more solid platform in 2018. The big question now though is on John Meyler — is his management going to inspire and lead Cork to the same places Kieran Kingston took them?

Meyler showed none of his hand in the Munster League but he has has a pretty full deck to pick from tonight.

He will want to get off to a win, especially in the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and it will be a surprise if Cork don’t bag the two points.

We’re still in winter but tomorrow in Cusack Park should still provide some insight into what approach Clare are going to adopt this year. I was at the Munster Senior League game against Cork when the Clare forwards ran a drag with the Cork defence. It was early January but a week later, against Limerick, Clare couldn’t buy a score. You can’t read anything into those games but Clare went for a smaller forward line and, with the same long-ball tactic they’d used against Cork. Limerick’s full-back line gobbled them up.

I’m fed up of watching Clare experimenting. They need to settle on a team. The Clare hurling public don’t want to hear too many more excuses from Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor — they need to know at least 12 of their championship team early in the league campaign. Key positions have to be locked down; goalkeeper, full-back, centre-back. Are Clare going with big men in Peter Duggan and Cathal Malone, or are they going for smaller, nippier forwards?

I appreciate that you have to be flexible, that you need different types of players for the modern game, that you must have a Plan B. But I still think Clare’s priority is to find a balance. Tomorrow will be a good challenge against Tipperary but home advantage may swing it for Clare.

Wexford have already given us some indication of where they are in preparatory terms, Davy certainly would love a league title, but we have no idea of where Waterford are at. They seemed to go into hibernation over the winter but there is no other place for Waterford to go other than winning an All-Ireland. They certainly wouldn’t turn their backs on a Munster or league title but, when you lose an All-Ireland final, there is only one balm to heal that hurt.

In that context, I don’t expect Waterford to be as concerned with doing well in the regular rounds as they have been in recent years.

Derek McGrath already admitted as much this week.

The new format has certainly changed attitudes, especially for the Division 1A teams, so I’d expect the league champions in March could come from Division 1B for the fourth successive year.

A league title would be a huge boost for Limerick but, if they put their minds to it, Galway could bag successive league titles before they turn their minds to successive Liam MacCarthy Cups.

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