This weekend Kilkenny are in hot pursuit of a 14th All-Ireland final appearance in the 17 years of Brian Cody's management so it's not often that they fail to catch their quarry.
Behind this remarkable sequence is a record that reads 16 semi-finals and just two defeats. If there are any lessons to be learned from what is now a substantial catalogue of some exhilarating contests, matches that weren’t so well contested, a couple of coups but more commonly desperate rear-guard actions and failed tactics one stands out: goals.
Throughout their history of semi-final engagements since 1999 Kilkenny average slightly more than two per match; their opponents have managed one. On precedent that’s a three-point handicap and that’s just the figures that click up on the scoreboard.
Everything about the goals Kilkenny have scored is more to do with reaction than registration. The crowd, the team and above all, the opposition are affected more profoundly that the basic three-point detail.
In Cody's early years their goals almost appear to be drawn down at the moment of greatest need. Example: in 1999 Clare have just scored a goal at the start of the final quarter and their deficit is reduced to a point. Within two minutes DJ Carey has sprung onto a ball breaking from Denis Byrne's side-line cut from Denis Byrne's side-line cut, zipped in and scored the goal that settles the match.
A year later, Galway have just extended a fragile half-time lead by a point on the resumption when – bang! – Carey reprises, this time plucking down a long ball from Brian McEvoy and rifling to the net for a lead Kilkenny will never lose.
Galway have their consolations in inflicting Kilkenny's only two semi-final defeats and both were secured while scoring more goals but otherwise only two opponents have raised more green flags in a semi-final, Wexford in 2007 – the only time Kilkenny didn't score any – and Waterford in 2009 and both lost.
Maybe the most valuable in the long term was Jimmy Coogan's with 10 minutes to go in the 2002 match against then champions Tipperary. It finally puts clear blue water between the teams and provides the platform for Cody's second All-Ireland; otherwise his record would have been one in four years.
Eamonn Corcoran played for Tipp that day, having a lively joust with his college friend Shefflin, and remembers well the impact.
“Every time you play Kilkenny, you’re thinking if they don’t get a goal here we have a chance. I think they understand that because they were always turning to take you on, break the tackle, get a run on you and create the overlap. Or they could go direct into the square for Henry to get a flick on or catch. Either way they were thinking goal all the time.
"I can picture Paul Ormond throwing his hurl as they scored the goal. It was a crucial goal and looking back Brian Cody could have been under pressure if they had lost because a number of people in Kilkenny mightn't have been happy. It shows you that it's often better to stick with someone because he went on to win more than anyone."
A more recent observer of the phenomenon is Limerick’s Séamus Hickey, who played up a storm during monsoon conditions two years ago and whose team so nearly added a name to the list of counties to have beaten Kilkenny in a semi-final.
Two exquisitely timed goals by Richie Hogan, just before half-time and replacement Richie Power to take the lead away from them in the 56th minute saved the day and Limerick lost by two – the tightest margin in all of Cody's 16 semi-finals.
“In the first half we really went hard for the first 25 minutes,” says Hickey. “Our plan was to get ahead early and stay ahead because chasing them just doesn’t work. It was going well. We were two points up and on top in a number of areas so when Richie Hogan got that goal it was like a hammer blow for us.
“At half-time we had a chance to collect ourselves. At least conceding just before going in meant that they couldn’t build on the momentum, which they often do when they sense that opportunity and turn a chink into a chasm. It’s not conscious because you can’t train that but they always seem able to do it.
"I remember the ball coming in – I was marking Colin Fennelly – and it seemed innocuous, the sort of thing we'd dealt with a hundred times over that year because Tom Condon and Richie McCarthy had been hurling extremely well and our full-back line was really functioning as a unit but Eoin Larkin's movement made it.
“It was a killer for us because it really tests your belief and your conviction – that you can beat this team, especially for us at that stage. We had loads of ball after that. Kilkenny atypically sat back and ground out the result. We were taking pot shots from distance and not getting scores.”
Kilkenny are well aware of the damage a green flag can signal. Tipperary played them for a second year running in 2003 and annihilated them. The critical score came in the 49th minute when after four exhibition saves by Brendan Cummins, Tommy Walsh rammed the ball into the net and effectively broke the opposition.
“That typified it,” says Corcoran. “Many players would have been glad just to stick it over the bar. They sensed the opportunity and were ruthless about it.”
Another aspect of the goal rushes is the tallies of Kilkenny's marquee forwards. Fourteen hurlers have scored 33 goals in semi-final since 1999 but just five account for 21 of those: Shefflin and Eddie Brennan (6 each), Carey, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid (3 each).
Opinions differ on the relevance of this.
“I don’t think it matters,” is Eamonn Corcoran’s view. “The importance is that it’s a goal in Croke Park and the effect that has on the crowd. Scoring three points from play in quick succession doesn’t have the same impact. If you’re the marker of one of their main forwards and you go out thinking, ‘if I can stop him, it will be a big advantage,’ then it’s probably a bit demoralising.”
Séamus Hickey feels it can undermine opponents when key men raid them for goals.
“It can, especially if as a team you’re trying to game plan around someone like Henry. In the 2012 quarter-final we had done well at limiting his opportunities and curbed him quite well. Then he got a goal into the Town End in Thurles and the game plan blows up. That definitely has an impact if you were trying to keep DJ, Henry or – like I was in the 2007 final – Eddie Brennan quiet.”
The message looks straightforward: to reach targets, avoid goals.