Earlier this year, former Kilkenny hurler Tommy Walsh alluded to the ethos his former manager had created. “Brian (Cody) told us he wasn’t there to win All-Irelands. He was there to create a spirit that couldn’t be broken”, Walsh said, speaking to GAA.ie. Kilkenny have remained true to this statement throughout the reign of Cody and have reaped dividends.
This unrelenting hunger was never more apparent than in this year’s All-Ireland Final against Galway. It seemed as if ‘the Holy Grail’ was Galway’s for the taking. Kilkenny had been outworked and outclassed in the first half. If not for T.J. Reid’s opportunistic goal and a number of chances Galway failed to take, Kilkenny were dead and buried. The typical thing for a team to do would have been for heads around the dressing room to drop and an All-Ireland dream to fade away. Kilkenny are no typical team.
Within five minutes of the beginning of the second half, the Cats had annexed the three-point deficit and were on level terms. They did not flinch thereafter. This teak tough mentality is years in the making. The intensity of Brian Cody’s training sessions is much revered around the country. In 2008, I was lucky enough to attend The D.J. Carey School of Hurling, where we were given the chance to watch the Cats train in the flesh. An hour-long training match ensued during which the ball didn’t once leave play for a sideline. Cody never blew his whistle for a free. ‘Hard hurling’ is the requirement on the training pitch. Roy Keane referred to Premiership matches as a ‘day off’; such was the intensity of Manchester United’s training sessions under Sir Alex Ferguson. This level of intensity has allowed Kilkenny to match, and even surpass, that United team in terms of complete domination.
At this time I also got the chance to see Richie Hogan up close. He was 19 and yet to fill out. While only 5’7”, Hogan is now known for his unparalleled strength under the high ball. It is clear that in order to cut it on this Kilkenny team, you must utilise the gym. Ger Cunningham remarked of his time as manager of the University of Limerick hurling team, that Kieran Joyce had done so much gym work, that he needed assistance in fitting on his jersey. Physically, Kilkenny are an enormous team and have the ability to endure the toughest of tests.
Many felt the victory over Tipperary in last year’s decider was a last hurrah of sorts. Walsh, Henry Shefflin and J.J. Delaney were among the stalwarts who decided to call it a day. These men are three of the greatest to have ever played the game of hurling. However, the transition has been seamless due to the strength in depth of this Kilkenny squad. Lester Ryan helped to bring Clara its first county title in over 25 years, yet his appearances in the Black and Amber have been fleeting. Michael Rice was one of the most dominant midfielders in the country between 2009 and 2011, yet he too finds himself warming the bench. Brothers, Richie and John Power, combined for four goals and three points in last year final yet fail to start. All of these players are chomping at the bit for game time, knowing they have to perform when they get a chance.
So difficult is it to start on the Kilkenny team, that there is total appreciation for the jersey and nothing is taken for granted. Richie Hogan is widely regarded as the most talented underage player to emerge from Kilkenny in the last 25 years. Yet it was only in 2011 that he finally nailed down a place as a regular starter. T.J. Reid endured a similar wait. For every major high that we have witnessed in recent years, there was a low of not making the starting 15 or being substituted early in a game. This gruelling process has aided in making them two of the finest artists in the game today.
Work rate is described as the number one trait required to make Cody’s team sheet. Veteran selector Martin Fogarty explained the selection process for the 2012 All-Ireland replay against Galway. There was a forward spot up for grabs and Walter Walsh got the nod. Fogarty explained that there were plenty of more experienced and skilful forwards in the county but Walsh was the one who ticked all the boxes in terms of blocking, hooking and hassling. His work rate was ‘manic.’
This appreciation of the jersey was evident in a recent interview with D.J. Carey. Carey recalled breaking his hand in a training match. He went to hospital to have a cast put on. When leaving the hospital, Carey had two choices: Go home or go back to Nowlan Park and join the team for lung bursting sprints. He chose the latter.
Pound-for-pound, there is very little difference between Kilkenny’s starting 15 and other top teams around the country. A piece of Richie Power magic saved Kilkenny late on from defeat against Limerick in torrential rain in last year’s semi-final; Hawk-Eye denied John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer from sealing All-Ireland glory for Tipperary a number of weeks later and Galway seemed destined for glory at half-time in this year’s decider – the margin between victory and defeat at this level are so fine. Above all, the pretenders need to match the spirit and intensity of Kilkenny if they wish to take their throne.
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