Kilkenny at their best were just much better than the rest

Thu, Dec 27, 2012, 00:00

A good start and finish but an awful lot going on in between for Cody and co in a stop-start summer, writes SEAN MORAN

More than 22 years ago I headed off on a day trip to see the Ireland-England soccer match at Italia 90. At the airport one of my travelling companions – a pleasant, entertaining and intelligent chap – arrived at the airport with his family, who saw him off with great ceremony in his novelty green hat.

In the euphemistic vernacular he had a few along the way and was transformed, but not in a good way, for the duration of his trip to Sardinia.

This involved having a few more, trying to break through a cordon of armed police at the stadium – the carabinieri’s nerves already taut from the presence of English fans – having earlier shouted something deeply inappropriate into a reception being held for the late Brian Lenihan senior, a candidate in that year’s presidential election, and finally ending up in custody from which he was sprung just about in time to catch the red-eye home.

Back in Dublin early the next morning, weary from his escapades and further calmed by a couple of hours sleep he was restored to his reasonable, affable self. Having been greeted by the same family who had seen him off about 24 hours earlier, he was taken home to give a presumably-edited version of the trip.

Just because you get from A to B doesn’t mean you haven’t been to Z.

The hurling summer began with Kilkenny annihilating Cork in the league final in Thurles. Some months later it concluded with Kilkenny annihilating Galway in the All-Ireland final to complete the fifth double of Brian Cody’s management. But in between things had gone a bit haywire.

For all the emphatic performances of May and September this was the least convincing All-Ireland in Kilkenny’s portfolio. Caught memorably on the hop by Galway in an historic Leinster final, which saw the Bob O’Keeffe Cup cross the Shannon for the first time, Kilkenny’s display was symptomatic of a stop-start summer.

Alternating between the power and drive that devastated Dublin, Tipperary and Galway was the listlessness that led to a drubbing in the provincial final, a less than convincing defeat of Limerick and near-disaster in the drawn All-Ireland final.

At their best they were still better than the rest; not at their best they looked vulnerable.

The how and why of counties’ winning All-Irelands become less relevant with the passage of time and that will be especially true of this year. For the first time in 53 years the hurling final went to a replay but that won’t be the main reason 2012 stands out in the history books.

Henry Shefflin’s ninth All-Ireland medal overshadowed the same achievement by his team-mate Noel Hickey but Shefflin had started not alone every one of the nine finals but every single championship match of the Cody era going back to 1999.

More astonishingly, at the age of 33 when a man in pursuit of a record All-Ireland medal might expect not to have to do so much of the heavy lifting he all but single-handedly saved the drawn All-Ireland final even down to the much-questioned decision to point a penalty in the last couple of minutes, a preternaturally calm percentage play given the circumstances and one utterly vindicated by the outcome of the replay.

The impact of all of this was deservedly reflected in a third Hurler of the Year award (another record).

Galway’s role in the season might also be overshadowed by their fate in that replay but to soar as they did in the course of three championship matches against Kilkenny shouldn’t be forgotten just because they succumbed to gravity at the end.

The question remains the recurring one for Galway: can they build on a season of great improvement when Joe Canning moved closer to being the sort of presence who can win an All-Ireland for the county with a modicum of support? Tipperary had an annus horribilis culminating in and defined by the farcical All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny when between side shows and no-shows they were a counterfeit of the collective that so thrillingly won the 2010 title.

To be fair to Declan Ryan and his management they had won Munster within themselves and were marginal favourites going into the Kilkenny match but that afternoon brought a bleak end to his two years and Eamon O’Shea will juggle the advantage of lower expectations with the disadvantage of having to effect major reconstruction.

Cork showed some gains with the return of Jimmy Barry-Murphy in an encouraging league (even allowing for the final drubbing) and a place back in the All-Ireland semi-finals but the lack of stand-out personnel looks certain to limit the scope of that improvement.

Dublin will consign 2012 to the same file as Tipperary. The humiliation of the much-hyped championship collision with Kilkenny and the embarrassment for Anthony Daly of losing to his own county were added to by how agonisingly close the minors came to an historic All-Ireland and the fact of relegation from the league they had won in 2011.

On the positive side Clare, again All-Ireland under-21 champions, and Limerick are obviously on the rise, making the coming Munster championship a fascinating prospect.

As corroborating evidence of what was an interesting year despite its ultimate outcomes being so predictable, the victory of Loughgiel Shamrocks in the club final on St Patrick’s Day was affirmation of the whole championship’s capacity to reward a far broader range of worthy contenders and salutary proof that exceptional talents like Liam Watson don’t always have to be restricted by context when pursuing elite honours.

Highs and lows

Score of the year: David Burke (Galway) v Kilkenny, July 8th

In the 45th minute of the Leinster final Galway were already 10 points ahead – out of sight against anyone except Kilkenny – when David Burke picked up a ball from Damien Hayes. His first shot was blocked but he managed to take two touches on the ricocheting sliotar and, while falling, flick it over the bar for a point and a lead of 2-14 to 1-6. Breath-taking.

Display of the year: Henry Shefflin (Kilkenny) v Galway, Sep 9th

It appeared that the only thing standing between Galway and an All-Ireland was the force of Henry Shefflin’s will. The drawn final hadn’t gone particularly well for him in the first half but operating at centre forward he galvanised the team in the second half and ended with 12 points, ensuring inter alia that his ambition of a record ninth All-Ireland medal would survive to another day.

Low-point of the year: Kilkenny v Tipperary, August 19th

Not alone was this All-Ireland semi-final fractious and frequently mean-spirited and it wasn’t purely because of the farce that unfolded as Lar Corbett tried to insist on a gavotte with an unwilling partner. It was that this fixture, which had promised so much ended up in parody as Tipp soullessly folded under the impact of Kilkenny’s drive.

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