Is Cody about to work the oracle once more?

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Every week Kilkenny are shuffling their deck, particularly at the back. Any team needs to nail down three and six to be capable of winning that All-Ireland.When Kilkenny started winning under Cody, Noel Hickey was a rock at full-back. Then JJ Delaney. At six you had the likes of Peter Barry and Brian Hogan. To see if he (Cody) can bring on another five or six players and keep Kilkenny competitive and ready again to make the next step….. I just don’t see the fairytale ending, that he’ll do that and go on and win the All-Ireland.

Michael Duignan is pretty much the sharpest hurling analyst out there, but even a man as astute as the Banagher one, is liable to the occasional faux pas. So when he was writing in his Irish Mail on Sunday column on February 17, he might have thought he was on safe ground to state that Kilkenny were incapable of winning another All-Ireland during Brian Cody’s tenure.

Now two months ago, when Kilkenny were 10 points down in the first half against Clare, it seemed like an open goal to write them off. Having won just 3 of their previous 12 competitive matches, their worst streak of his reign, was it really such a stretch to say they were in decline?

But Duignan reckoned without the importance of the re-introduction of one man into the set up, a certain Thomas Joseph Reid. Maybe his inter-county career took a bit longer to get going than his clubmate Henry Shefflin, but in the past 6 years, his performances have been every bit as good, if not better, than the king in his prime. Is it any coincidence that Kilkenny lost the 2 opening games without him, and have won the remaining 6 since he’s returned?

But it’s not just Reid who has been behind the resurgence. Ever since the Tipperary game in Nowlan Park a few months ago, there has been a stability to the Kilkenny line up. It’s as if Cody realized he needed to settle on a championship 15 early, to give his players enough time to grow into their positions. Sure the cards have been shuffled a little at times, but basically, the spine of the team has remained the same.

The full back line has been set in stone for a while, and though Padraig Walsh has had his difficulties at stages, including Sunday, barring injury, we know he’s a cert for the number 3 jersey. Joey Holden will never be a stylist, but his determination and limpet like marking are valuable assets. Paddy Deegan has gone from looking like a man who never wanted to be a corner back, into one of the best in his position in the country, and Eoin Murphy is probably the best goalkeeper out there. Certainly, after Sunday, I’m sure Bubbles O’Dwyer would agree.

In the half back line, there are further causes for optimism. Conor Delaney had John McGrath in his pocket in the early stages of the first half and it was only when the, admittedly outstanding, Loughmore Castleiney man was freed from his clutches, that he enjoyed some joy. Cillian Buckley has always been a superb athlete, but now his use of possession has become something equally noteworthy. And Enda Morrissey has really adapted to the number 7 position.

In midfield, Conor Fogarty looks capable of slotting back in at some stage, but there’s evidence to suggest he won’t be overly missed if not. Richie Leahy has a habit of overplaying the occasional ball, but has enough about him to be worthy of a championship place. And James Maher hurled an amount of ball once Leahy had departed from the field.

Up in the forwards there’s still a few creases to be ironed out. Certainly, if any of Richie Hogan, Ger Aylward or Colin Fennelly come back to full fitness in the next few months, the likes of Alan Murphy and Bill Sheehan would be nervously looking over their shoulders. Walter Walsh looked like a man who had forgotten to eat his weetabix in the first half, before delivering a second period of strength and swagger. And Martin Keoghan is not especially easy on the eye, but he’s a hell of a handful for any defender to face. His work rate is exceptional, he’s not short of pace, and for every DJ Carey that Kilkenny produced, they also needed a John Hoyne or John Power to do the grunt work beside him. Keoghan seems more than capable of filling such a role.

And then there’s TJ.  There was a collective sharp intake of breath in the crowd when he went down clutching his knee in the first half, but after walking gingerly for a few minutes, he moved through the gears to deliver a, now customary, masterclass. The reassurance he gives the side is immeasurable, whether it be through expert free taking, ball winning, vision, skill, sidelines….if there’s a more complete hurler in the country I haven’t seen him. Certainly, you wouldn’t back against Kilkenny any time you’d see the Ballyhale man in the side.

So will they win another All-Ireland in the near future? Well, we don’t know that. Here’s what we do know though. They’ve got the best hurler in the country in Reid, the best manager of all time in Cody, and the strongest mentality of pretty much anyone out there. And sure, you could pick multiple holes in the side – lack of experience, top class scoring forwards, a specialized full back – but in a year when every one of the contenders contains some sort of flaws maybe, maybe that will be enough. Certainly they’ve got enough in their armour to put the fear of god into anyone facing them.

Tipp meanwhile, leave their familiar haunting ground licking their wounds once more. Yes we know they’ve got Bonner Maher, Seamus Callanan and Noel McGrath to come back. And yes, the likes of Bubbles O’Dwyer and Cathal Barrett are well capable of driving things on in summer. So they’ve still got enough in their locker to earmark them as contenders. But the age old failings still remains. If it comes down to an arm wrestle where grit and tenacity is needed, do you really fancy them to grind it out?

Just like Rory Mcllroy when the chips are down on the final day, there seems to be a brittleness about them in the intensely rarified atmosphere of a high stakes battle. This was a game that they were hotly fancied for, that they needed to make a statement in, and yet when the heat was turned up in the second half, they failed the test. And it’s been a recurring theme in the games they’ve played against Kilkenny (23rd defeat in 34 attempts) in Cody’s time. However much they might like to deny it, there’s no real getting away from that fact.

So from being in a position where people were seriously doubting his position a few months ago, Cody has managed to turn it all on it’s head. But then again, Duignan was not the first person to do so. Ger Loughnane was questioning the logic of him staying on 2 years ago, saying that he was in danger of leaving “the cupboard so bare that many years of famine” would ensue.

But Cody is nothing if not durable. Last week against Wexford showed he is now more comfortable adapting to the challenge of the sweeper system. His deployment of James McGarry in the stand and increased engagement with his selectors, demonstrates how he is willing to embrace modern methods and delegate. And the fire and brimstone of the second half comeback shows that the “spirit that can never be broken” attitude, that is the whole cornerstone of the side’s success, is alive and well for all to see.

So the show goes on. He’s not getting any younger or prettier, but the old dog is still capable of learning a few new tricks. So for sure, this is not as innately gifted a side as the 2006-09 version. But he’ll never win another All-Ireland with Kilkenny? Oh, you should know better by now Michael. Never write Cody off. Never ever.

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