Jackie Tyrrell: Kilkenny’s evolving tactics a potent future template

The league has already been a success for Cody’s side fans will demand win over Tipp

Watching Kilkenny against Wexford last weekend, I had to laugh to myself at some of the things they were trying.

The tactical shift going on in this team now is brilliant to see – all the short passes, the support lines of running, the different ways they're coming up with to move the ball up the field. Combine it with all the things Brian Cody demands of you as fundamentals – work-rate, aggression, ruthlessness – and it's a clear template for success.

They scored a point in the 54th minute that summed up everything about their new approach. Shaun Murphy had just landed a long-range point for Wexford. Eoin Murphy took a short puck-out to Pádraig Walsh on the 20-metre line, who straight away got his head up and bounced a hurl pass to Cillian Buckley on the edge of the D. Two passes and Kilkenny still weren't at the 45 yet.

Cillian collected and turned to look upfield. Just as he crossed the 45, he flicked a handpass to Conor Fogarty in midfield. Apart from the short-passes, what was really interesting at this point was the fact that as Cillian gave the pass, he had runners either side of him – Pádraig Walsh to his right and Paddy Deegan to his left.


So just to make this clear – from a quick puck-out, Kilkenny were running a designed play where it needed three passes to find their midfielder and in which their full-back and corner-back were making 50-yard runs to either support the ball carrier or be a decoy. Not alone that but Paddy Deegan kept his run going, took the lay-off from Conor in midfield and played a hurl pass onto Wally Walsh – and still kept running.

Wally miscontrolled the ball and a ruck followed but when the ball squirted out to the left, it was Paddy who was there to get onto the break. He was on the Wexford 45 by this stage, just out by the sideline but he didn’t panic at being up there, as former Kilkenny corner-backs might have (and did!).

Instead, he turned back inside before threading a lovely pass sideways through four Wexford players to find the run of Mossy Keoghan. Mossy took the pass at pace, ran at the heart of the Wexford defence, fooled them with a dummy handpass before batting the ball over the bar.

In the end, it was a simple score. But the movement that made it, the skill level and trust required to take the ball the length of the pitch like that with decoy runners and options everywhere, none of it has happened by accident. That’s something Kilkenny have obviously made their mind up about over the winter. They have clearly drilled it and practiced it over and over again. As I say, it’s brilliant to see.

What I was laughing at was trying to imagine what would have happened even just four years ago if we tried that. JJ Delaney would have freaked out if he'd seen me running from corner back to support a half-forward. Jackieeeeeee! Go back a few years further and it would have been even more unlikely. No word of a lie – Michael Kavanagh always turned his back on puck-outs so there wouldn't be a hope of him getting a short one.

Clear shift

So there has been a clear shift in how they play and how they distribute the ball and how they react to that distribution. Before, you might as a corner-back make a five- or 10-yard run off the ball just to keep the forward honest. But now you have situations where other defenders apart from the ball-carrier are making 20- or 30-yard dashes in different directions. Some are going towards the ball, some are going away from it.

But the big thing is that there’s constant movement. Before, the thinking would have been, “Lads, if this thing breaks down, we’re left wide open”. But that’s gone. You can see that these lads have been practicing this through the winter just by how confidently they’re making these runs. You can’t half-do this. You have to commit to it.

The whole idea is that it moves the opposition around and gives their sweeper more to think about. If Cillian Buckley has options left and right and straight in front, then he can essentially do four things with the ball – either move it to one of his three options or play it himself.

Playing against Wexford, that means Shaun Murphy has to be alive to four different possibilities. He can't just sit in the pocket and tidy up the breaks from puck-outs. He doesn't get the armchair ride Kilkenny gave him last summer in Wexford Park. He has to be constantly on the move, ready to go to wherever the danger is.

But because the ball isn't just being played in long, the sweeper now has less time to react. For Mossy Keoghan's point that I mentioned above, Murphy was perfectly in position when Paddy Deegan picked up the ball from the ruck but all it took was an off-the-ball run by Richie Leahy to take him out of the middle. Once Deegan turned back inside and for Keoghan, there was a chasm right down the middle of the Wexford defence.

I would imagine against Tipp on Sunday, Kilkenny will be happy to play 15-on-15 if that’s how it turns out. But they needed to come up with a way of playing against teams with sweepers and it looks to me like they decided at a certain point either over the winter or midway through the league to accept that sweeper systems weren’t going anywhere and they’d have to use their hurling IQ to get around it.

This would be driven by management. Obviously, Brian’s instinct would be to play conventional but he’s realistic too. He will know that this system is here to stay and that Kilkenny’s two defeats last summer came against teams who used it. You can’t just keep saying we’ll play our own way. Just arriving down to Wexford Park and not making allowances for what the other team are good at isn’t going to get it done. If this is what other teams want to play, then come up with a proper plan to combat it.

It looked to me that when they were playing against teams with sweepers, they were happy to just stumble upon whoever was going to be the free man. It usually turned out to be Paul Murphy but some days it was Cillian Buckley and some days it was Conor Fogarty. Or it changed from man to man within games even.

This is a clear shift away from that. It looks like they’ve decided that 90 per cent of the time, Cillian is going to be the free man and so he is going to be the fulcrum. Cillian is one of the best in the game at playing that role – he does it brilliantly with Dicksboro and they won a county title with him playing it last year.

Slow start

His short- to medium-distance passing is excellent and his positional awareness is spot on. He’s very disciplined at it too, which is essential. He won’t try anything too out of the ordinary, he will just knit everything together in there. All the other players know their role within that system now and when Cillian gets the ball, there are supporting runs everywhere, options, defenders creating space, everyone on the move.

After a slow start, it has been a really good league for Kilkenny. The younger guys have been a huge plus so far. The redeployment of Paddy Deegan to corner-back has worked very well. Enda Morrissey and Conor Delaney were both disciplined and smart against Wexford, taking the catch option away from Jack O'Connor and Lee Chin. Richie Leahy has added dynamic runs and scores from midfield.

Keoghan is my favourite find. He’s a very underrated player, massive energy levels and work-rate, abrasive in the tackle, high-octane and a real Brian Cody player. Unselfish, hard-working, a ball-hunter sometimes deep in his own half. His body language sometimes gives the impression that he is tired and jaded but don’t be fooled. He made up a 30-yard gap to hunt down Diarmuid O’Keeffe last week and the ball ended up going wide. Cody would be all over that kind of thing.

All in all, they are beginning to develop a ruthless streak. When they got on top in the first half, they replicated the on-field dominance on the scoreboard – hitting 1-11 without reply and they had two more good goal chances. I feel they have landed on the correct mix and focus on tactics, systems, shape, puck-out strategy mixed with serious work rate and the execution of simple skills. Not a bad formula – but then again Brian is a retired teacher.

They'll need every bit of it this Sunday. Don't be thinking this is just a league final. Tipperary are coming to Nowlan Park – I can guarantee that all week every Kilkenny player would have run into someone who'd let them know that defeat is not an option. They might have got the odd punch on the shoulder to remind them.

I used to laugh that sort of thing off but I’d walk away and the depth of feeling would stay with me. Jesus, I better be right for Sunday or I could be lynched by my own crowd here if we don’t win – that kind of thing. Players knew exactly where we stood when this game came along, no matter what the tournament was or time of the year or who we had or hadn’t. If this was a game of snap between the two teams, you’d be expected to spill blood trying to win it or the crowd would let you know all about it.

In the last six league knock-out games between the teams, Tipperary have only won once. In the last 10 championship meetings, Tipp have only won twice. So that’s three wins in the past 16 big games. They need to get one over the old enemy in their back yard for their own mental strength. They can’t be letting this sort of thing grow and fester.

I'd actually argue that Kilkenny don't need it as much. They've had a good league, come up with a new style of play to use when needed, they've come up with potentially another half a dozen players and they still have Richie Hogan, Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly to return fully to the panel. I'd say that's not a bad campaign at all, regardless of what happens on Sunday.

Just don’t tell the Kilkenny fans that they don’t need the win.