Kenny Archer: There's life in Kilkenny's hurlers yet
OFTEN, the greatness of a team or a manager can only properly be assessed after they lose.
Last Sunday’s All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final felt like the end of an era, perhaps the changing of the guard. But we’ve been here before. There were doubts expressed about the future of Kilkenny boss Brian Cody as far back as the autumn of 2001.
Even calculating the current millennium as starting in January 2001 (which excludes Cody’s first managerial All-Ireland in 2000), since then he and Kilkenny have won almost twice as many titles as all their rivals put together. That’s 10 All-Irelands compared to six for the rest of flipping Ireland, as Tipperary’s John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer might have put it.
Another indicator of Kilkenny’s recent dominance. At the beginning of this millennium, it was tight at the top of hurling’s tree: indeed Cork were in pole position on 28, the Cats on 26 and Tipp on 24. Now, Kilkenny are well clear, with 36, Cork on 30, and Tipperary having just moved up to 27.
Key to Kilkenny’s surge to lead the roll of honour was their ‘bouncebackability’. Almost every time that Kilkenny failed to win the All-Ireland they bounced back with a vengeance. That Tipperary triumph in 2001 was followed by a Cats’ back-to-back; the same again when Tipp beat them in 2010, which was supposed to herald a period of dominance by the Premier county.
Clare’s shock success in 2013 was followed by two more Kilkenny titles. The only year that Kilkenny failed to immediately regain the Liam MacCarthy Cup was in 2005, when Cork retained the crown – and that was followed by a four in-a-row from Cody’s men.
That would make anyone wary of ‘writing off’ Kilkenny, of suggesting that they won’t win back the All-Ireland next year. Such superiority makes one forget that Kilkenny can have fallow periods. There was one between 1993 and 2000, which had itself followed a nine-year gap. Indeed between 1976 and 2000 the Cats won ‘just’ six senior All-Irelands, compared to seven for Cork.
Funnily enough, Kilkenny had shown a knack for back-to-backs in that period too, in 1982-83 and 1992-93 (as well as 1974-75). That was arguably the most open and competitive era in hurling, though (at least since the 1910s), with Clare, Galway, Offaly, and Wexford all joining ‘the big three’ on the winners’ rostrum. Since Offaly’s controversial ‘back door’ success in 1998, only Clare have broken the hold of Kilkenny, Cork, and Tipp.
Yet even with fewer realistic rivals for Liam MacCarthy, for the first time this century there’s the serious sense that Kilkenny might –just might – go without a senior All-Ireland for a couple of years - or more.
It’s not just that Kilkenny aren’t the force they were, but that the new All-Ireland champions look so good. Tipperary’s display was superb, especially the second half, and they should have beaten Kilkenny by a double-figure margin.
It would be foolish not to tip Tipp to hold on to the trophy. Most of Michael Ryan’s players arguably aren’t even in their prime yet. The average age of their outfield players in the All-Ireland starting line-up was less than 25.
Outstanding centre half-back Ronan Maher is only 20. Midfielder Michael Breen and corner-forward John McGrath just 22 (sub Jason Forde is the same age). Cathal Barrett, Seamus Kennedy, and Dan McCormack are all 23. John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer is 24.
Noel McGrath is 25, full-back James Barry and centre half-forward Patrick Maher both 26. Even Seamus Callanan, skipper Brendan Maher, Padraic Maher, and corner-back Michael Cahill are all only 27. Indeed, the only player in his 30s in the Tipperary team was goalkeeper Darren Gleeson, albeit that he’s 35.
Kilkenny’s starting line-up wasn’t especially old either, average age 26. But they had more men on the wrong side of 25, including their better players: TJ Reid and Richie Hogan both 28, Eoin Larkin 32, the injured - and much-missed - midfielder Michael Fennelly 31.
Kilkenny have lost some utterly exceptional players in recent years - ‘King’ Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh, JJ Delaney, and Richie Power. Jackie Tyrell might be the next to go, given that he’s 34 and was an unused substitute on Sunday, even as the Kilkenny full-back line was repeatedly torn to shreds by the Tipperary attack (although obviously part of the problem there was the steady supply of ball coming from much further out the field).
Cody has talked of talent on the panel that isn’t well-known yet, but it’s understandable if those players have so far slipped under the national radar. Kilkenny haven’t won the All-Ireland U21 title since 2008, or the Leinster at that level since 2012. What’s more, thewir U21s even lost to Westmeath this year.
However, they have won three of the last four Leinster Minor titles, and took the Minor All-Ireland in 2014 (and 2010). Tipp corner back Cathal Barrett quite rightly didn’t get carried away when one local journo pointed out to him that he’d won the All-Ireland wearing the same number jersey as an illustrious predecessor from his club Holycross Ballycahill, the legendary John Doyle.
Pointing out how he’d been inspired by seeing Doyle’s collection of medals, Barrett added: “He’s eight, I’ll take the one for now and go from there.” That’s the right attitude. In modern times, every county outside Kilkenny takes their All-Ireland when they come and welcomes it with wild celebrations.
Tipperary remember well how they were supposed to dominate after defeating Kilkenny in the 2010 decider. It used to be the case for decades that Kilkenny could barely beat Tipp in the Championship; now whenever the Cats do lose to their old rivals it seems like it’s the end for them.
Cody is only 62 and he’s retired from teaching. Managing Kilkenny is his job. He has repeatedly shown the ability to rejuvenate his teams, and not necessarily with players in their early 20s but those in their mid or even later 20s.
The Cats will bounce back, sooner rather than later.