Shane Stapleton looks at the challenge for the Kilkenny boss as they prepare for Wexford on Saturday
The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus's paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object.
Should you need to stitch a patch over a hole on your sock, surely it remains that same sock; but piece by piece, if the entire garment needs to be replaced, is it now a new sock or still the same? Every time you step into a river, different waters flow — so is it the same river you’re entering?
The point being, it’s a matter of identity. Are Kilkenny the same Kilkenny for the past 19 seasons? Since late 1998, Brian Cody has been replacing plank after plank, and yet the Cats are the same juggernaut, navigating through the All-Ireland hurling series at the same rate of knots.
The telegenic excellence of one generation has been assumed by the next. Where once DJ Carey, Henry Shefflin, or Eddie Brennan lit up our screens, more recently Eoin Larkin, Richie Power, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid have produced similarly effective magic. The parts of the ship have been ever-changing, but not the man directing it, nor the destination.
Most other counties exhibit a habitual dissipation of talent, while Kilkenny have kept on keeping on under the James Stephen man. He too was a component of success in his own playing days. When factoring in his collection of medals on the field, Cody has now been involved in an outrageous 35% of all league, Leinster and All-Ireland titles won by the Cats.
Yet it could all have turned sour. There are eerie parallels between the supposed doubts now and those from 12 years ago. Back then, Galway stunned the Cats in an All-Ireland semi-final and the Cats would go a second season without the Liam MacCarthy Cup. It was probably the only time that Kilkenny players could legitimately say “everyone was writing us off”.
Cody’s autobiography is short on juicy details but he did admit his P45 was on his mind after that August defeat to the Tribe. A couple of unnamed players sensed those doubts and approached him to stay. He did, and then came a sustained perfect storm from 2006-09. Earlier that same summer of 2005, then Leinster champions Wexford had themselves in position to beat Kilkenny for consecutive seasons. Without the ball ever touching his hand, Eoin Quigley control and slapped a ball over from midfield to put Wexford 1-7 to 0-3 ahead on 22 minutes. “Marty, I think that’s one of the best scores I’ve ever seen in Croke Park,” declaimed Michael Duignan on co-commentary duty.
It was a sliding doors afternoon. Had Kilkenny been beaten at this earlier juncture, perhaps Cody would’ve walked. Instead, they won the remainder of the game 0-19 to 0-9.
“You could look at it that there were a few times through history where you’re wondering ‘could Wexford be the ones to finish Cody’s tenure?’” says Eddie Brennan. “When you look back, a thing like that can be such a massive turning point in history.
“Had they stayed the course that day and beat us, who knows what would’ve happened. I think probably the fact that it was Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final, he just wanted another go, to avenge that more than anything else brought him back to the table. It’s ironic, two defeats by Wexford ultimately could've change history in a massive, massive way.”
So it could again. The Model County lowered the striped flag at Nowlan Park for the first time in 60 years during the 2017 NHL quarter-final. A landmark moment for the county and new manager Davy Fitzgerald; now, 12 years on, the Slaneysiders are again looking to go back-to-back on their neighbours and Cody. The door could slide either way this Saturday.
“Kilkenny are clearly favourites and rightly so, they've been at the top table since Brian Cody took over,” says Wexford icon Adrian Fenlon. “So he’s brought the X-Factor to Kilkenny and he’s maintained that which has been so admirable.
“Tipperary struggled in the first round against Cork after being so dominant last year, so for Brian Cody to maintain that hunger is huge. Even though a lot of the great players like JJ Delaney and Henry Shefflin and Jackie Tyrrell and Eddie Brennan and all these are gone, they still have that history, pride, that legacy.
“They’re not going to be gone anywhere too far for too long. They are favourites and rightly so, but Davy Fitzgerald has brought a lot to Wexford and built on Liam Dunne’s work in previous years.
“That new infusion of energy and gameplan under Davy means Wexford have a great chance. They’re in great physical condition and are playing with confidence. They’ll run Kilkenny close.”
Conor McDonald tormented the Cats’ square at Nowlan Park, Lee Chin’s power at centre-forward came to the fore as others tired, and there is real pace across the team.
Shaun Murphy has taken to the sweeper role impressively, and the Models showed a hunger for goals in their fine win over Laois, even if they didn’t always convert. Yet in many ways, the home side at Wexford Park might be setting themselves up for yet another Kilkenny ambush.
“Historically, when a team comes into Nowlan Park and beats Kilkenny like that, whatever way it was going — physically, dictating terms of engagement, and with hurling — I have no doubt that it is absolutely burning Brian Cody,” says Under-21 boss Brennan.
“Burning to have it happen but it is something that will really motivate him. He loves that type of a challenge when a team does you in like that, but it’s nothing personal as such.
“It’s either going to make them or break them,” Brennan adds of the league defeat. “They’ve had a nice bit of time to prepare, it’s a blessing in a way. They’ve been able to do a bit of conditioning, reset and refocus, and I just think they have a very clear agenda now, a clear focus on what they want.
“I guarantee you one thing, he’ll give Wexford their due respect, and that they have to just get stuck into them from the word go. There’s no real rocket science to that. The lessons that were very obvious the last day, they were physically the better time and hurled as the better team.
“In a way, on top of it all, they probably showed their hand a little bit. They have the Davy Fitz system that he has used with three or four teams and I don’t think Wexford can go conventional 15-on-15, and it will be interesting to see Kilkenny’s plan to go around the sweeper which was very effective at Nowlan Park.”
In other words, expect to see a Cody team. Perhaps even another Kilkenny year.