Like Mark Twain wrote many moons ago “rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. Like the Monty Python sketch where the pet shop owner tried manfully to argue “He’s not dead, he’s resting”. Like Elvis looking at the TV, munching a Kit-Kat chuckling, “I’m just having a break”, the grim reaper turned up at Brian Cody’s door with a shroud and a scythe, only for the Village man to open it, spit into his hands, shake his head and say “Nah. Sorry pal. Not today”
So it’s false then. All a load of lies, damn lies and statistics. I was wrong too. On this website yesterday I predicted something like it. That the gradual descent of the great Kilkenny team would be further accelerated by a third consecutive league defeat in Walsh Park. But they’re not dead yet. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that Kilkenny hurling is not dead yet.
Now I had a gut feeling that Waterford would beat Kilkenny in the National League in Walsh Park on Sunday, but in my preview, I reckoned without a few things. I forgot that the Kilkenny attack happened to feature one TJ Reid who, even given Joe Canning, Seamus Callanan, Con O’Callaghan et al, still just about happens to be the best forward in the country. I didn’t factor into the equation, how Waterford’s early season form, is turning from an eyebrow raising malaise, into a full on crisis. And I didn’t fully appreciate the extent to which the mantra of Cody’s tenure “Creating a spirit that could never be broken”, still applies.
You see there’s two ways of looking at the current hurling situation in the marble county. You could say that given their early exit from the championship last year, and the lack of obvious top class talent coming through, this is the weakest Kilkenny team that have competed in around 20 or more years. You could say that. And if you were a glass half empty sort of person, you would say that.
But you could also say, that now is a fiercely exciting time to be a Kilkenny supporter. Because rather than entering into a championship season as overwhelming favourites, you’re now in the privileged position of supporting the underdog. And though the underdog doesn’t usually win as many games, those games tend to be a lot sweeter when they do.
So maybe now isn’t a great time to be a glory hunting Kilkenny supporter. Maybe now isn’t a great time to be backing them to win a 4 in a row. But it is a great time to be a young and hungry Kilkenny hurler. Because now at least, when it comes to making the championship team, rather than trying to split the atom and prove you’re a better defender than JJ Delaney, you’ve got a hell of a chance of making it. You’ve got the opportunity to test yourself, against high quality opposition in raucous games in Division 1A, on a weekly basis. So what’s to complain about that?
But are these guys good enough? Well that remains to be seen. As of now, probably not. But they could be. And if they keep fighting for their lives like they did on Sunday, it’s possible they will be. A notable feature of the game on Sunday was how, throughout the many, many rucks, a Kilkenny man emerged with the ball most of the time. Never mind the questionable skill and condition levels, Kilkenny just wanted it that bit more. And considering their previous two results, and the fact they had home advantage, that’s a pretty damning indictment of Waterford.
So Kilkenny fans know that, bar that mishap against Clare last week, they have a top class goalkeeper on their hands. Joey Holden will never be the most stylish player to ever don the black and amber, but he’s near enough the most committed, and his form has been good of late. Padraig Walsh is not your stereotypical stopper full back (he was turned notably by Tom Devine in the first half) but given Cody seems insistent on keeping him in the position, he’ll likely make a good fist of it. And at either centre or wing back, Cillian Buckley wouldn’t be far off being the best in the country.
Up front Wally is Wally. He’ll fill your heart with wonder one minute, then break it the next. But he’s still not a forward any back would want to face. And then there’s TJ. Even given Henry Shefflin’s influence on the great Kilkenny side of the past decade and a half, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that TJ is more influential now, than Henry was then. Not because he’s necessarily better. But because he’s so much better than those around him.
How many other Kilkenny players, or players in any county, would have scored that wonder point in the first half? How many would have had the skill and strength to score that goal in the second half? How many would have the vision and accuracy to play that beautiful pass to Lester Ryan in the second half, that Lester, as unfortunately Lester tends to do, made a bit of a mess of? Not many. Not many, if any.
If Kilkenny are to have any success in this year’s championshiop, they need to have TJ Reid fit and firing. They also need Paul Murphy, Colin Fennelly, Conor Fogarty, and a full throttle, or at least, approaching full throttle Richie Hogan. But what of the supporting cast?
Well of the newcomers, Conor Delaney and Enda Morrissey can be most satisfied with their day’s work. James Maher hurled an amount of ball when he came on and is probably due a consistent starting spot. Pat Lyng worked tirelessly throughout. John Donnelly may not have the pace for summer championship hurling, but he certainly has the wrists. And Martin Keoghan had one of those days as an inter-county hurler, that would be enough to have his father welling up with pride.
And as for Waterford? Well here’s a few things we know to be true about them. We know, on the basis of the last three years of Championship hurling, they’re one of the best 3 or 4 teams in the country. We know that winning a few league games, or even the competition outright, is not going to define their season. We know that, given their indifferent form in the league last year, a lukewarm spring, does not necessarily translate into a tepid summer.
What we don’t know is the way the graph is pointing. Sure, they’re a massively talented group of players but do they have the hunger, the drive to go that extra mile again this year? Is Derek McGrath as determined as he was in the first four years of his tenure, or is he secretly thinking about his exit strategy? Is Austin Gleeson just a little off colour at the moment, or is his half time substitution a symbol of a deeper problem? Because to lose 3 league games in January and February isn’t necessarily disastrous, but the manner of those defeats is somewhat troubling. Are they just not that interested in the league? And if so, do they think a laissez faire attitude at this time of year is a wise strategy? Because I’m sure, Brian Cody, for one, would argue otherwise.
And there’s caveats to be added to this loss of course. What if Tom Devine had buried that goal chance in the first half? What if Stephen Bennett had nailed that penalty in the second half? What if they hadn’t missed so many presentable point scoring opportunities? So Waterford weren’t as far off as the scoreline suggests. But given the respective team sheets that were on display, this was a game they should have been winning.
So what can be really read into today is anyone’s guess. A bog of a field in Waterford in February does not equate to July or August in Thurles or Croke Park. A comprehensive away win for Kilkenny in the league, does not mean they will necessarily be victorious in summer. But here’s one thing we know for sure. Never try to put a gravestone on the corpse of Kilkenny hurling. Because just as you’re about to do so, you can be sure a defiant fist will rise up from the ground.