Brian Cody surveys his latest masterpiece with quiet satisfaction
Kilkenny manager looks forward to a 16th All-Ireland final after deposing champions
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody celebrates at the final whistle of the All-Ireland hurling semi-final against Limerick at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Even allowing for that imposing record, Saturday’s stunning ambush of Limerick, which consigned them to the status of former champions, must rate as his greatest coup in a year that had seen low expectations as the painstaking process of rebuilding a team appeared to rule out any chance of competing for the top prizes.
But compete they did and with a vengeance, even when Limerick had regathered after a shock-and-awe blitz in the opening quarter had left them nine adrift and surged back onto the challengers’ shoulders. The lead that had sustained Kilkenny from the 44th second of the match never disappeared, as they held the champions at bay.
“The prize is huge – getting to the All-Ireland final,” said Cody afterwards. “Obviously we knew the opposition was serious, All-Ireland champions, outstanding champions. We came up here to be competitive, to give ourselves a chance and we were obviously competitive. But we had to keep it going, grind it out and to finish ahead at the final whistle is massively satisfying.”
There was a sense of disbelief at the outcome. Limerick had been formidable-looking champions, apparently hitting peak form at the right time. Whereas it had been true that Kilkenny were fielding their strongest selection of an injury-addled year, no one could see them as the force of old.
Bottom of the league, beaten at home in the championship by Galway and edged out in the Leinster final by Wexford after a most uncharacteristically panicky endgame, how exactly does the Kilkenny manager conjure up performances like Saturday’s?
“Look, it’s either in a fella or it’s not. You can’t send out fellas there that you know in your heart and soul, are never going to be able to do that. The basic thing is you go out with total honesty first of all. You can talk about all the other things you like, essentially they’re in the county panel first of all because they’re well able to hurl, they’re good hurlers, they have plenty of skill and all the rest of it.
“And then it’s the application they bring and the honesty they bring and the sense of team they bring. Limerick are living proof of that with the way they won the All-Ireland final last year and they oozed it.”
As a biopsy of what overwhelmed Limerick, their half forwards, who had crushed Tipperary in the Munster final, scoring 1-8 from play, and a year ago in the quarter-final had been the bulwark that took down Kilkenny, in the process scoring 0-10 from play, were pressurised into a solitary point, from Tom Morrissey. How did that happen?
“That’s tough, that’s challenging. That’s the way game is being played by so many teams but when you have the quality of the half-forward line that Limerick have, it becomes even more difficult, and the speed that the other lads come onto the ball as well.
“It’s challenging and you can plan for it but putting it into practice and trying to get it right all the time is impossible in a lot of ways. It’s not just the half-back line looking after things but all the fellas outside of them as well.
“Hurling is now so fluid and so much tactics involved in it, it’s challenging for everybody.”
Limerick manager John Kiely refused to blame the long lay-off since winning Munster, saying he had been happy with how preparations had gone and he defended the contribution of his half forwards. They had been varied in order that Kyle Hayes could provide auxiliary services for captain Declan Hannon, who spent some of the first half trying to run off a knock, which eventually sidelined him at half-time.
“That was a tactical move on our part. It wasn’t as a result of what they were doing as a half-forward line. It was a necessity, we felt, within the game to shore that area up. Declan was after getting the bang. We need to make sure there was no line break in that area because, at that stage, we were eight or 10 points down.
“Tom Morrissey worked really, really hard, he had a lot of possessions. Gearóid [Hegarty] had a lot of possessions. Kyle had lots of possessions. I think they worked extremely hard and that is all we can ask of them. I wouldn’t classify it as a line that underperformed. They were up against a very formidable half-back line, as well.
“We pride ourselves on our work rate. Kilkenny pride themselves on their work rate. Our boys wouldn’t shirk away from that level of physicality. We pride ourselves on trying to be in the ascendency in intensity levels during the games. That was the challenge that was lain down before us tonight.
“It was a significant challenge. I think we responded in a defiant way. We refused to go away during the game. There were periods of the game where we could have just downed tools and said, to hell with it, we’ve enough done, but the boys dug in and fought and fought and fought right to the very end. On another night, it could have gone to extra time, but it didn’t.”
He refused to make anything of the officiating error that saw Darragh O’Donovan’s last-chance lineball deflected out for a 65 that was never awarded with the shot being waved wide.
For Cody, the next visit to Croke Park, less than 24 hours later, promised to be a most pleasant one, as he parried a query as to his preferred opponents in the final in advance of the Wexford-Tipperary semi-final.
“It’ll be very easy to be in Croke Park to watch that game. That’s a lovely day always when you know you’re in it. It will be massively difficult to win the final. But you certainly couldn’t win if you weren’t in it. And we have a chance when we’re in it.”