JJ Delaney believes ‘element of surprise’ will stand to Kilkenny come championship time

‘The big question is are the players playing for Brian Cody and I think 100 per cent they are’

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody on the sideline during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Group B match against Wexford at  UMPC Nowlan Park. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody on the sideline during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Group B match against Wexford at UMPC Nowlan Park. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

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Kilkenny qualified for the notional 2021 league final at the weekend with a week to spare. It has been a typically understated campaign. They are the only county in either Division 1 group to have a 100 per cent record going into the last series of matches and yet there was a sense of the underwhelming about Sunday’s win over Laois.

Even manager Brian Cody, who praised Laois’ competitiveness acknowledged as much. “It wasn’t a terrific display by ourselves but we are heading the table so we are happy enough.”

A recurrent problem for the Kilkenny manager is that the public, grown accustomed to success, are less patient and more demanding. Despite such grumblings around the county, JJ Delaney says that it would be untrue to suggest that the county is under pressure to win another Liam MacCarthy Cup.

“I don’t think so, to be honest with you,” according to the nine-time All-Ireland medallist and now a television analyst with Sky. “You take the last couple of years: he got to an All-Ireland final, he won a Leinster championship last year. For any other intercounty manager that’s a successful couple of years.

“There’s idle talk but I don’t buy into it. Probably the most important people in this scenario is the players. The big question is are the players playing for Brian Cody and I think 100 per cent they are.”

There has been a lot of attention paid to Kilkenny’s evolving style of play and a greater willingness to embrace a more modern, possession-based approach, a willingness to use the short option. Cody himself was dismissive of the suggestion when asked after his team had trounced Wexford.

“I wouldn’t look at things like that at all. Anyone who ever played hurling, the philosophy was that you always gave the ball to the man in the best position.

JJ Delaney at the launch of Sky Sports championship launch at Croke Park. Photograph: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
JJ Delaney at the launch of Sky Sports championship launch at Croke Park. Photograph: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

That said, it could be a hand-pass of five yards or a 60-yard pass. You do what you do. There is huge reference being made to those sorts of things now. I don’t see it as anything major to be honest about it.”

Delaney believes that the tactical emphasis has been varied by the team in the campaign to date and that it has been for the better.

“If you look at the few league games from the start of the year, 100 per cent they have. Against Dublin, Eoin Murphy probably went short for the whole first half. They’ve never done that before. I think that’s a very good thing for them to do because Kilkenny have become a small bit predictable as regards long ball.

“They’re just showing people that they can go with the short game. Will they do it in the championship? I don’t know but the opposition manager doesn’t know that either. That’s the beauty of playing the short game in the league, using it to show guys that they can actually play it.”

He also sees an advantage for Kilkenny in the uncertainty the varied game plan can create for championship opponents, compared to a year ago.

“The likes of Paddy Deegan and these guys are flying off the shoulders from the backs. They’re actually attacking from the back, like the rest of the teams are doing.

“Will they revert to type come championship? Probably in the white heat of championship they will but they are showing teams that they can mix it up.

“It’s keeping people guessing, which is the huge thing. The element of surprise will be there come the championship and the Kilkenny players are fantastic with the ball in their hands as well. They’ve proven over the last few games that they can actually play that game and that they’re comfortable playing that game.”

The league final will only be played if the winners of Division 1A, likely to be Galway or Tipperary, meet Kilkenny in the championship, at which stage the match will double up as a decider for this year’s Croke Cup.

Delaney says that although they aren’t among the favourites for the All-Ireland, nothing is entirely beyond the team.

“Would I be surprised if they won one this year? No, I wouldn’t to be honest because he’s there at the helm, pushing guys forward. He still has probably the most talented hurler in Ireland in TJ Reid who doesn’t seem to be relaxing his skill levels.

“So once you have him on the field and Brian Cody off the field I wouldn’t be surprised what they do.”

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