Not for one second did I buy into the pre-match talking up of Galway ahead of last Sunday’s All-Ireland Final against the now 36-times champions Kilkenny.
While they had clearly improved and markedly so on recent Championship performances (though their drawing with Kilkenny last year wasn’t forgotten by Brian Cody), and had taken things up a notch this summer, they’re still not the finished product.
Their remarkable All-Ireland semi-final win over Tipperary easily provided us with the most wondrous 70 minutes of the Championship – as high as skill as it was on emotion – but it was only a stepping stone towards Liam MacCarthy. Not an ascension.
For a half on Sunday, the Tribesmen appeared to have laid a foundation stone for victory. Their backs were mixing it well with Kilkenny – quite how Johnny Coen remained on the field escaped me – they held the midfield advantage and Joe Canning clearly looked in the groove.
But then half-time came. Jackie Tyrrell, complete with a large shared of surgically engineered metal in one foot, took centre stage in the Kilkenny dressing room and thereafter, the Cats’ claws were fully extended.
That they have weathered life so incredibly well in the wake of the retirements of Henry Shefflin and JJ Delaney is, even by Kilkenny standards, quite astonishing. And bear in mind they still had too much for Galway on Sunday despite the clearly visible labouring of Richie Hogan, the sidelined Tyrrell and Richie Power starting his Championship campaign with less than 10 minutes remaining.
Did Sunday’s Final come down to the pure skill sets of both sides? Not for me. The re-incarnations that Cody has overseen these past 17 years, and how he has adapted to life without DJ Carey, Shefflin, Delaney, Noel Hickey, Tommy Walsh, Eddie Brennan, etc, means any comparison with Alex Ferguson is wholly justified.
The one constant throughout the Brian Cody has been Cody himself, and he has and will remain the most significant name listed on a match programme for as long as he remains in charge.
“Well, the scoreboard only matters in the end,” said Cody, reflecting on Galway’s interval advantage.
“You don’t have to win the first half. And you’re not going to win 73, or 74 minutes. That’s just not possible. So to be ahead at the final whistle is the goal.”
Sitting in the bowels of the Hogan Stand for his 14th All-Ireland Final as manager, Cody added: “Three points down in hurling is not a big lead, like we were at half-time, and it’s fair to say we didn’t hurl as we would liked to have hurled in the first half. Galway hit us in every way possible. They were outstanding in the first half. Their work rate, and relentless kind of physicality.
“We knew we had to up the game in every aspect, and I thought the players response was magnificent, really. Our attitude, and relentless spirit, to just drive on.
“We would never have considered at all that we were going to dominate this game. You hang on, hang on, and it’s how you play under pressure, and hang in there, really defines how you do in the game. And we hung in, when the going was tough, and drove on then, when we got our spell. We fought it out, and got our reward, really.”
Analysing Kilkenny isn’t exactly wasted time, but their success comes down to three main factors: Cody, of course, the natural talent of his players and their constant application to working on the game’s fundamentals: hooking, blocking, passing and shooting.
The legendary nature of their Nowlan Park training sessions has unquestionably been overblown. They work harder than any other county out there, hence their incredible level of consistency.
But as is the case with the All Blacks when it comes to rugby, the fact that Kilkenny’s chosen sport moreorless occupies the exclusive time of youngsters in their territory must be considered as a contributing factor in their success. But that’s Kilkenny’s way. That’s Kilkenny’s choice.
Being bitter about their level of excellence and their sustained success levels is wasted energy. Embracing the physical nature of the sport while working harder on hurling’s fundamentals has got them where they are.
Have they hurled tactically? Of course they have. The notion that any top level team just goes out with a ‘give it a lash’ sense of derring-do from their manager is wildly fanciful.
Eoin Larkin has tracked back inside his own half for a great deal of his bejewelled senior career; Kilkenny have frequently deployed a two-man full-forward line, so the idea that they’ve only played the ‘traditional’ way does ring entirely true either.
Managers set out their teams in the manner they believe is the best route towards success. Brian Cody has got it right more than any other manager in the history of either code, but he’s revelled in each All-Ireland victory with equal fervour, be it won with a swashbuckle or with unrelenting intensity.
The bottom line? Kilkenny, almost inevitably under Cody, find a way to stay that little bit better, even when the resource base has narrowed, as it unquestionably did this year.
What’s the lesson for everyone else? Keep trying. But try harder. I don’t know if that means Waterford, Tipp, Galway and Clare have to do 110 hill runs if they only did 100 last winter, but the output of graft and skill has got to come in equal measure.
In the wake of the semi-final defeat to Kilkenny, Derek McGrath said: “I think sustaining the actual effort against them was more taxing than any other game up to this, so I think any analysis of us is balanced by how good Kilkenny are and how good they are both hurling wise and physically and how difficult they are to compete with. We have no quibbles or calms with the result: Kilkenny were better than us.”
Kilkenny are better than Waterford – and everyone else for that matter. The task remains the same: catch the Cats. See you all next year.