As soon as he’d dusted himself off and took up the option of a further two-year term last October, Davy Fitzgerald made no bones about it: Waterford were going to have to match Kilkenny physically if they were to have any hope of catching up with the champions.
“I saw something different in Kilkenny, something more ferocious . . . The aggression in the tackle was unreal, incredible. Our guts didn’t get a second to breath,” he said of the massacre witnessed at headquarters last September. “I’ll never forget what I saw up close to me… Maybe bullied is the wrong word for it but [the lads] were outmuscled and outplayed.”
He added: “I think teams throughout the country are going to have to take a good look at themselves and say, we are going to have to raise the bar. Kilkenny have a new dimension brought to it.
“Their physicality in their tackling, their shape, and the way they are taking the ball up in numbers, it’s a different game now.
“We’ve two chances now in the GAA world – either to lie down and let them do what they are doing to us or try and match it some way or another.”
At the County Board meeting that ratified his permanent appointment criticism was aired by a number of delegates concerned at the off-the-ball stuff Waterford had engaged in before the hopelessly one-sided All-Ireland decider and indeed the semi-final victory over Tipp.
What might have worked against the Premier freshmen didn’t disturb Kilkenny one whit. Indeed, as one Noreside GAA official put it afterwards, “It was like going into a farmer’s yard and kicking his angry dog.”
Kilkenny themselves had been accused of bending the rules – most notably by Ger Loughnane, whose comments a few seasons back prompted the normally unflappable Cody to call the then Galway boss “that lunatic from Clare”.
However, the former Banner boss’s sentiments were shared by some. As Waterford’s Eoin Kelly told Denis Walsh of the ‘Sunday Times’ in reflecting on Waterford’s All-Ireland final flop: “Their tackling is ferocious. They hunt in a pack and they’re very good at it. They crowd you out and pull and drag out of you. I’d say on six occasions they just pulled me here [by the elbow].
“They have every trick off to a tee. People laughed at Ger Loughnane a couple of years ago but he wasn’t 100% off the mark. They know what they can get away with. They’re very cute at what they do. Physically, they’re very, very strong and others teams will have to come up to that benchmark.”
Former Offaly hurler turned pundit Daithi Reagan – who savaged Fitzgerald on several fronts after the final rout, and since – says Cody’s men are operating right on the edge.
“Their huge physicality is something I’ve noticed for the last couple of years; at times it can border on over-the-top: pulling of the jersey, two players tackling an opponent, holding him up”.
He maintains, however, that “other teams are going to have to look at what Kilkenny are doing through video analysis” and “are going to have to become a bit more physical.”
They certainly did that over the winter. A tougher Tipp outfit gave as good (or as bad) as they got in the League final, while Galway were unrecognisable from the soft touches that went out with a whimper last year; albeit with a still spongy underbelly beneath the bulk, as Waterford showed.
Kilkenny became markedly more aggressive after Cork’s short-passing, running game brought them back-to-back All-Ireland successes in 2004-’05.
After they’d put a stop to the Rebels’ gallop by reclaiming the McCarthy Cup in 2006, which Cody hailed as his sweetest success, the Kilkenny manager affirmed: “I believe, and the players would agree, that possibly the greatest skill in hurling is tackling, the ability to block, and put pressure on players. Anybody can hit the ball… but the game is so seriously intense now, and fitness levels massive, and without that you won’t win anything.”
Though how many would agree that tackling is the sport’s greatest skill is debatable, it was a hugely notable admission and confirmed the county’s uncompromising approach from thereon.
After the rollicking Loughnane received most would-be critics tended to keep their heads well above the parapet. However, two young rising stars, Galway’s Joe Canning (who wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet in the qualifier against Clare) and Dublin’s Liam Rushe, recently cited the Cats’ strong-arm tactics.
Rushe went as far as to describe some of their tackling as “dangerous”, while shrugging: “If the referees are going to let them away with it, it means we might as well do it as bad and hopefully we’ll be let away with it as well.”
In late June Cody decided it was time to defend his men against the growing charge that they were somehow a dirty team. Speaking at a Lucozade Sport sponsorship launch the manager challenged their accusers and also referred to Waterford’s off-the-ball antics before the slaughter of the (not so?) innocents 11 months ago.
“Everyone talks about us and physicality but I believe we probably played second fiddle in the physicality stakes over the last few matches. I would say we played second fiddle the last day to Galway, I would say we played second fiddle to Tipperary in the league final, and I would say Waterford intended playing first fiddle to us in the physicality stakes in the All-Ireland final.
“And that’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that. I’d prefer if we weren’t playing second fiddle in any way but I don’t have a problem with the approach of teams or anything like that. Everybody just goes at the game, it’s the reaction to it that can confuse a bit.”
His selector Martin Fogarty also poured scorn on the claims that they’re overstepping the mark: “Kilkenny, I would say, are one of the cleanest teams in the country. I think, over the years, our record has shown that… I can’t remember us getting a red card in the last five or six years… Our coaching at all times is ‘play the ball'”.
On the edge
After the League final Cody robustly defended Tullaroan tyro Tommy Walsh – “one of the finest hurlers any of us have ever seen and he’s just a phenomenally skilful player”, yet caste by many as the county’s ‘enfant terrible’.
“I would hate to think Tommy is not a player who plays on the edge. Where are you supposed to play? I’m not sure about ‘playing on the edge’, what some people’s definition is. He’s a very competitive player, like all our players are.”
As far as Cody’s concerned, “If referees are allowed to officiate the thing in the spirit of the game then it makes for great games. I think the lasting thing from the Galway match and from the Tipperary League final as well is the sheer, absolute brilliance of both games. It’s a physical game – you can’t say it’s a man’s game because people start talking about ‘What’s a man’s game? … We carry on and do what we do.”
He accepts: “It happens when a team is successful for a while that all sorts of agendas come out of the sky… That’s the thing that’s being built up around us, but I would say we’re a very genuine team who play absolutely with a great spirit. And without a shadow of a doubt, we’re competitive every time we go out…
“It doesn’t bother me at all. But I do know for certain that we never, ever, ever go out with the intention of playing anything but within the rules… Dirt is absolutely not even a remote element of our panel. Hurling is a physical game and my God if that’s ever taken out of it, the game is dead. It’s full blooded, it’s manly, it’s genuine, it’s decent.”
It might be unpalatable to the purists but, for now, unless there’s a thorough re-examination of the rules – and as the game gets faster and teams get fitter it’s practically impossible to pick out what’s fair and foul – it’s a fact of hurling life that Waterford were going to have to get stronger and become more ‘street smart’, as it were to have any hope of closing the gap.
Fitzgerald said prior to this year’s championship: “I got a massive pasting after the All-Ireland final last year that Waterford were dirty and so on, and a couple of our own players probably said things they shouldn’t have said.
“I wouldn’t go out to kill anybody – I nearly got my own finger chopped off a couple of years ago and it’s something I’d be very much against. Waterford are not a dirty team and never will be as long as I have anything to do with it.”
However, he reiterated: “The game has gone such a way that you have to be able to compete physically,” says Fitzgerald. “There are such athletes out there now playing hurling, they’re so strong, that you have to be able to compete with them.
“We have hurlers who are as good as anybody in the country, but we have to be strong. What we set out to do this year was to get our gym programmes early and to stay with them, and to get our physical base better than it has been.
“We had to strengthen up in the tackle and I feel we are stronger now than we were at any stage last year. If you look at Kilkenny they’re nearly gone to the Tyrone football style.
“I watched the All-Ireland final [on video] – it hurt me, but I had to watch it – and Kilkenny hunt back in packs, they win possession, slip out a pass and then they break upfield. It’s a football style and we have got to counteract that.”
Given Waterford’s fierce work over the winter and spring, that seems to be standing to them now, presumably the difference will be harder to spot come Sunday. And here’s hoping that what should be a great spectacle doesn’t suffer as a result.