Shane Stapleton looks at a testing two weeks for Kilkenny
Another county, another manager, another tactician; anyone but Brian Cody, and this would be called a crisis.
Five months on from Kilkenny’s heaviest All-Ireland final loss in 52 years, Clare inflicted upon the James Stephens man his worst ever loss as county manager.
Since winning last year’s Leinster final amid a gutless second-half display by Galway, the Cats have won just one of five competitive games. Cody’s trusted clubmen Jackie Tyrrell and Eoin Larkin have exited the fray. This team has yet to score a goal in the 2017 league.
They were bullied by Waterford and saw three men treated by a physician, while four more had to call for attention in the pummelling of Ennis. Were they to be wearing any colours other than black and amber, you might even question their presence last Sunday as a Division 1A side.
Richie Hogan, whose five points after coming on at half-time won last year’s provincial decider against the Tribe, was hauled off after 49 minutes at Cusack Park after an almost imperceptible outing. To remove the 2014 Hurler of the Year when all other forwards - with the exception of TJ Reid - were struggling doesn’t present positive optics.
Wally Walsh also went off with a hand injury and the manager admitted there will be doubt over his involvement against Cork, while another unsteady performance by Paul Murphy at centre-back adds to the notion that he should be redeployed at corner-back where he so excels. Yet Cody feels he must persist based on what we’ve seen in the pointless Walsh Cup and in the league so far.
The Kilkenny team pose with the Bob O'Keeffe Cup last July. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Changes had to be made from 2016 and the manager identified the full-back position as the primary concern; they must forego Padraig Walsh’s immense influence outfield because he is a human Securicor van inside his own '14. (Watch for the short puckout to Walsh, followed by his thunderous left-sided clearances travelling to the far '21.) A necessary compromise.
Michael and Colin Fennelly, along with Ger Aylward, are to come back into the team and no doubt their absences played a big part in the scoreline against Clare. He who is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else — and doubtless that is Cody’s stance. He'll make do and push on. In any case, cold reflection informs us of a more revealing statistic from Sunday: just two of the Banner’s eight All Stars from 2013 started, Brendan Bugler and Podge Collins.
In a final nod to the 2016 Leinster final, we must remember that only Larkin is no longer part of Cody’s phalanx. He still has the other 16 players who were good enough to land another provincial crown, so to borrow a quote from a man who will threaten their dominance this season, “let’s chill the beans”. The Cats will be fine, they’ll still be part of the Bob O’Keeffe discussion, the Liam Mac battle, and their younger players will grow a year older and stronger.
Clare defeated Kilkenny by 13 points last weekend. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Donall Farmer
The idea of them failing to lift the All-Ireland this year is not a hasty once based on two league games alone. Predicting results in spring is like trying a solo-run down a water slide, treacherous at best. The perception comes down to everything mentioned above, that a former player was moved to tweet about the work rate even if he didn’t mean anything sinister, and about the team managing just 0-2 in the final 28 minutes of normal time against Clare.
The younger players have struggled and much of that has been down to bringing them in before time. Of not having 12 or 13 experienced stars carrying them and putting them on the front-foot as they build confidence at this level. Pat Lyng, Sean Morrissey, Evan Cody, Conor O’Shea, Richie Leahy and the others who have been given a chance, they would all find the going much easier if the Fennellys and Aylward were there too carrying some of the load.
Managers up and down the country have for years faced what is in front of Cody now: putting together a winning team where the sum must far exceed the parts. No man is better equipped for the challenge.