By retiring at the “veteran” age of 32, Cork hurler Tom Kenny has reinforced the notion of the ever shortening intercounty career – although Kenny may well be the rule rather than the exception.
Kenny’s retirement – while admitting himself he’s “healthy, and it’s not because of injury” – certainly follows the recent trend of footballers and hurlers being shunted off the intercounty stage once they hit their 30s: but Cork hurling trainer David Matthews, who worked with Kenny over the last two years, believes that has nothing to do with their physical fitness.
Instead, Matthews suggests players are being ruled by the commitments of the game, not the limits of their physicality. There will always be exceptions, but they are becoming increasingly rare in the so-called modern game.
“I think with Tom it’s the fact he’s already contributed so much to Cork,” says Matthews, still the Irish record holder over 800 metres. “There was a feeling last summer was going to be his last hurrah. But what cheeses me off about the GAA is hearing these sweeping statements that once a player hits 30 ‘their legs are gone’.
"That's such a generic statement, and definitely overused. Certainly some guys are held back, with injury or whatever, but that certainly wasn't the case with Tom. He was moving as freely this summer as the first day I saw him.
“So the commitment, really, is the big thing, especially if you’ve gone so far, and Tom has won almost everything in the game. Now, did he have the same turn of pace as 2004, or 2005? Well I don’t know for sure. And maybe the game has moved on a little. But his legs weren’t gone. That’s for sure.
“But what we are seeing more and more, at intercounty level, is that the players are either students, or else single. The commitment is massive now, and Tom has been 12 years at the top of the game. That’s a long time alright, and I suppose the heart has to be in it, too. But then I would say he had another excellent year this summer.
“So if the question is whether he still had something to offer Cork I would say yes, certainly. There was nothing to suggest he was slowing down in training.”
Kenny made his senior debut with Cork in 2003, winning back-to-back All-Irelands in 2004 and 2004, and his retirement means Brian Murphy is now the sole survivor of that Cork era. However, news of Kenny’s retirement comes at the same time as Henry Shefflin has committed himself to a 16th season with Kilkenny, even though he will turn 35 next month.
"Well Henry has many great attributes, obviously, but I'd say his number one attribute is his leadership," says fellow Kilkenny forward Richie Hogan. "He gives absolutely everything to the cause every day he goes out, and it is a great lift for everybody else, to have him beside you. So it's a big boost to have Henry back, yeah."
Not winning another All-Ireland this summer, as close as both Cork and Kilkenny came, possibly influenced both of their decisions, albeit in different ways, but Matthews is certain there was no reason, physically, why Kenny could not have played on in the same way that Shefflin now is. "There's no doubt he's still in great physical shape. When I started with Cork, I kept saying to Tom 'perfect', after everything he'd do. The players kept giggling at me, because I didn't realise 'perfect' was actually his nick name, and had been an ongoing joke with Tom for the last 10 years.
“And he was that good, at everything thing he did. He could just as easily have been a successful middle-distance athlete. He had the perfect stride, foot-plant, balance, cadence all of that. He would not have been out of place running the 800 metres.
“He’d do the running drills so perfectly I would actually use him to demonstrate them. I mean he was better than me. It was a little embarrassing for me, but that’s how good he was. Everything he did was perfect. He’s an accountant, too, by profession, so it’s in his nature to cross his ‘t’s and dot his ‘i’s. And he looked after himself. He was the epitome of the professional in an amateur sport.
“Maybe there is some mindset there, too. That players start to accept that when they hit 32 or 33 they’re over the hill. Maybe coaches think that too, and the general public, definitely. But there is no scientific proof to back that up. Because aerobically there is still potential for development well into the 30s. Look at Rob Heffernan (world champion race-walker this summer, at 35). He’s not slowing down.
“Derval O’Rourke was writing about that recently as well, that there’s no reason why athletes can’t continue into their 30s. And look at Ryan Giggs. He’s competing at the very highest level, at 40. If he was slowing down at 32 he’d have been put out to pasture a long time ago.”