Kilkenny’s young blood bubbling up at just the right time for Brian Cody
New players like Ger Aylward, Eoin Murphy and Conor Fogarty are staking their claims
Tuesday evening, not long past six o’clock. The lobby of the Clyde Court Hotel on Lansdowne Road gurgles with pre-match hubbub. Within a few hours, the night will have been revealed as another sorry stitch in Trap’s carpet of woe but for now there is at least a notional hope that something worth braving the cold for will transpire.
Inside the door, horse-shoed to the right of the reception desk, a group of lads rag on each other and shoot the breeze. Hidden in plain sight, JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Eoin Larkin, Paul Murphy and a few other Kilkenny hurlers draw barely a sideways glance.
In a crowded reception with hundreds of people walking in and out to pick up tickets or grab a jar, nobody pays them no never mind. No dads ushering kids up looking for autographs, no camera-phones pointed in their direction.
If farming All-Irelands doesn’t quite bring Beiber levels of fame, it’s not without its perks all the same. They were at the game as guests of John Delaney, payback for letting him pose with the Liam MacCarthy Cup over the winter. He got his photo, they got a scatter of tickets for the Austria game. By the end of the night, they might have been reflecting on who got the better end of the deal.
As they face into the closing stages of another league, a Tuesday night in Lansdowne is a liberty Kilkenny can handily afford to take. The league table is bunched tight without them having had to stretch and yawn yet. Clare ought to have beaten them last Sunday but they failed to because they hit 12 wides in the second half.
Yet you got the feeling watching on that if they’d scored four of them, Kilkenny would have found five from somewhere.
“Good performances are grand, if you’re into that kind of thing,” was Brian Cody’s sublime verdict afterwards.
We know by now the kind of thing Cody is into. Keeping the show rolling, nipping and tucking through the spring so that summer arrives with a team combat-ready and bouncing in its boots. What stood out against Clare was that apart from the ever-canny Larkin and Aidan Fogarty, Kilkenny’s best players were next-generation models. It afforded Cody certain luxuries he might not have expected.
He was able to replace his whole full-back line from the Waterford game six days earlier and still survive. He was able to smuggle not just Michael Rice in for his first game of any hue since the All Ireland semi-final but Tommy Walsh’s younger brother Pádraig as well, thrown in for his first start as a late replacement for Delaney.
He could even take his time about reintroducing Walter Walsh to the world, the outsized star of the All-Ireland final replay coming off the bench for the last 15 minutes.
At 24, Ryan is older than the others, having been in and around the panel for a few years without forcing his case.
Rice’s injury has given him a run in the side through the league – he’s one of five players who have started every game, Tommy Walsh, Richie Hogan, Eoin Larkin and Aidan Fogarty being the others. Cody has been fond of playing Rice at wing-forward over the past few seasons and if Ryan continues to play this well, he and Michael Fennelly would be a formidable pairing in the summer.
Of the younger brigade, Murphy looks to have the best shot at keeping the jersey for the championship. The 22-year-old from Glenmore is a fine hurler in his own right – he played at wing-forward for WIT in their Fitzgibbon Cup campaign – but he’s been impressive as Kilkenny’s last line in three of their four games. David Herity’s hold on the jersey has slipped since Pa Bourke’s goal in the 2011 All -Ireland final and Murphy will take some shifting now that he is in and playing well.
In front of him Conor Fogarty and Walsh are in the right place approaching the right time.
Fogarty, son of selector Martin, was probably their best defender last Sunday and although Delaney, Tyrrell and Paul Murphy will surely form the full-back line for the championship, Fogarty’s claims have grown with each game. No bad thing, considering that four of Kilkenny’s starting defenders from last year’s All-Ireland will be over 30 come June.
Maybe the most eye-catching of them all though has been Aylward, the Glenmore corner-forward who has pitched in with 1-1 in both the last two games. Stocky and robust with a nose for goal, he will push the likes of Colin Fennelly and Matthew Ruth for the spare spot in the full-forward line.
As it happens, Aylward turns 21 today. No better time to be making a name for himself. Kilkenny’s regeneration demands it.