Kilkenny's historic greatness there for all to see
ON GAELIC GAMES:For the past 12 years an extraordinary hurling era has unfolded and this time there will be an unparalleled record of Kilkenny’s amazing achievements, writes SEAN MORAN
WERE ANYONE to ask for an example of the essence of Kilkenny hurling and its unflinching, Spartan perspectives they could do worse than listen to the schoolchildren on last Friday’s Morning Ireland.
In an audio package that would normally be keynoted by cheery and boisterous kiddie outpourings, the “oh yes, we will” and “oh no, they won’t” parts gave way to something sombrely more measured.
One discussed in preoccupied tones the need for Kilkenny to address their poor starts to the matches whereas another, questioned jovially as to whether there was any chance of Galway winning, paused before replying pensively: “Yeah, there’s a bit of a chance.”
They mightn’t be sent out, like the young of Sparta, at an early age to fend for themselves and train with the military (as far as we know) but when it comes to hurling they certainly think for themselves. As it turned out their apprehensions were unnecessary, partly because Galway had been hit by injury to two very influential players but even allowing for the impact Joe Canning’s hamstring and James Skehill’s shoulder had on the team, the important transformation came from Kilkenny.
Given the success of Brian Cody’s changes for the replay, there was puzzlement as to why both Cillian Buckley and Walter Walsh hadn’t been used in the drawn match but perhaps the fact that the second half of that match was generally heading Kilkenny’s way until the very end explains why there had been such a cautious substitution policy.
Another factor is the history of the county’s finals during the current run that has seen six championships won in seven (eight, if last month’s draw is counted) outings. Cody and his management have generally been spot on in their changes for the big day. Last year after apparently atrophying all season, Eddie Brennan was sprung for the final and his energy and pace helped to open up Tipperary and fashion a triumphant swan song for the player who promptly retired. The greatest contention surrounded the dropping of two players in 2009. James Fitzpatrick and Martin Comerford were replaced but the latter was sprung from the bench to great effect, setting up the play that culminated in the penalty that turned the match and scoring a goal himself.
The switches and their success demonstrate the depth of quality in the county panel during the current era. Being able to draw unarguable form out of players at training requires a consistently pressurised environment, which will guarantee a hurler’s readiness to slot in on even the biggest days.
Nor is it a case of making changes for the sake of shaking things up although that can have a function for a team. The most stunning performance of Cody’s entire tenure is widely regarded as the 2008 final when they ripped apart Waterford in an almost flawless, record breaking (30 points scored) performance. This was the only time in the present run of seven successive finals that Kilkenny fielded an unchanged team.
Tellingly the selection that most emphatically turned out for the worse – the inclusion of Henry Shefflin two years ago on the back of a fervently-desired apparent miracle – happened in advance of the one final the team lost and having gazed in wonder at the player’s galvanic displays this year, particularly in the finals, you’d have to speculate as to how that one would have turned out had he played until the end.
Shefflin’s ascent to the game’s pinnacle of historic achievement feels as if it has been a little underplayed. This is due partly to Kilkenny’s emphasis on the collective and Cody’s almost tangible distaste for personal records but maybe also because this is a career still in progress, even as it pulls ahead of the legendary medal haul of Ring and Doyle.
It’s funny how ambivalent we can be about history. For the past 12 years an extraordinary hurling era has unfolded. Yet for the country at large it can all get a bit tedious but that’s simply a by-product of one county’s supremacy.
Kilkenny are fortunate the bountiful circumstances of the present day occur at a time when there will be an unparalleled record of the achievements. They will be the first historically significant team to leave behind so much evidence for future generations.
Maybe though, that is also ambivalent. The past is never more alluring than when unrecorded and consequently mysterious. There is for instance no shortage of reference points for the impact – sporting and social – made by the Dublin-Kerry rivalry of the 1970s.
The matches however stand up less well. Dating from an era which had begun to archive its big matches at least, the contests between the counties can look scrappy and loose at times with nothing of the modern structure to the football and the permissive rules allowing hand-passed goals rendering the spectacle faintly ludicrous at times. But to the contemporary audience they were spellbinding and spectacular.
Jump back a generation and there is virtually no trace apart from the IFI highlights’ packages, which are by their nature too brief to give anything more than a flavour of what happened in, for example, the great Wexford-Cork matches of the 1950s.
The farther back and the more the surviving records dwindle. There is nothing for instance to give any sense of the most dramatic final in history, the 1939 Thunder and Lightning epic between Kilkenny and Cork on the day the second World War began. Nor is there anything left to convey a sense in moving images of how hurling became a mass spectator sport in 1931 when Cork and Kilkenny met three times in a final. In football the teams who set a benchmark, since unsurpassed in either championship, Wexford 1915-18 and Kerry 1929-32, are similarly unrecorded.
Kilkenny have probably settled definitively any argument about comparisons between the current era and the county’s first spell of dominance, which harvested seven All-Irelands from the championships of 1904-13 and in the process went from being a dual county to one acknowledged for their hurling innovation. As for posterity, maybe some archivist can ask the schoolchildren of Kilkenny their opinion of Shefflin and his team: “Ah, they’d be good, alright”.