Shane Stapleton looks at the rivalry between two of hurling's most enigmatic managers
Brian Cody and Davy Fitzgerald. They won’t puck a ball between them, but the conversation can't but be about them.
This Allianz League quarter-final will be their 13th meeting as inter-county managers, and as Davy Fitz brings a third different side to the firing range.
Cody is 9-3 ahead from the first 12 clashes, with Waterford (2009) and Clare (2014, 2016) providing the exceptions to Kilkenny rule in the league only.
Their first competitive clash was the 2008 All-Ireland final, an unforgettable day that the Deise would love to forget. The Cats winning by 23 points.
The most recent, a 2016 NHL semi-final, saw the Banner prevail by nine points en route to the league title. That result has actually punctuated what has been a very competitive streak for Davy against Cody. The four games prior to last year were all decided by just a single point, a statistic that's the envy of many.
With Wexford, Fitzgerald is now three games away from lifting the league crown two years in a row from Division 1B. Is there any reason for Wexford to fear this trip to Nowlan Park? Well, yes.
The Cats’ relentless work-rate led to a complete breakdown of even the most basic skills when the teams met there during the 2015 Leinster Championship — 5-25 to 0-16. That’s a worst-case scenario, and would ignore suggestions that the chasm has narrowed since.
Highlighting this better than anything else relates to an Under-21 clash between the same counties, also two years ago. The reason we mention it is that Sunday’s fifteens will be armed with many of the stars who featured then.
For the Model County, Conor McDonald, Liam Ryan, Andrew Kenny and Kevin Foley are now senior; meanwhile Kilkenny have brought through Jason Cleere, Conor Martin, Paddy Deegan and Liam Blanchfield. So back to the fear… Wexford actually won that Under-21 game by 17 points, meaning there shouldn't be much.
It’s quite simplistic to bring it back to the Cody factor but he is the best manager around, and players tend to improve greatly under his tutelage. The majority of us are on the outside hoping to sneak a peak at his formula, but all we really know is that there’s something there. Somehow he turns talent — outstanding or moderate — into long-term excellence.
What’s often said about Davy Fitz is that he gets a big bounce from players when he takes over a team, but that it’s sustainable for only so long. That players tire of either listening to what he’s saying, how he’s saying it, or what he’s asking of them. The Sixmilebridge man, just like most managers, likes to talk in terms of two and three-year plans, but there's a case that 2017 might actually be the Models’ time.
Lee Chin, Ryan, Matthew O’Hanlon, McDonald — they are part of a talented bunch that should be competing with the better counties. Fitzgerald wouldn’t have gone to Slaneyside unless he believed it too.
When Davy reviewed the tape of Kilkenny’s seven-point win over Dublin last weekend, he may have believed some more. The Dubs were the better team before 31 minutes, with the Cats managing just four scores up until the incident that saw Liam Blanchfield find the net and goalkeeper Gary Maguire dismissed.
Richie Hogan was brought off mid-way through the second half for the second time this league because of a niggling back spasm issue that is limiting him. Kilkenny PRO Seamus Reade confirmed earlier this week that the 2014 Hurler of the Year is a doubt for Sunday while Conor O’Shea, who has been growing into the number four shirt, will miss out with a hamstring complaint.
Padraig Walsh also too be absent with a head injury. As Eamon Dillon wound up for a left-sided shot at goal on seven minutes at Parnell Park, with Walsh bearing down on him, it had the oft-mentioned hallmarks of a car crash.
Time seemed to lag somewhat, and a feeling of dread came over your columnist as the ball cannoned towards the Kilkenny man’s head. Initially he was writhing in pain, but soon the call of manliness compelled him to hurl on until half-time. The reality was that he went from minute seven to half-time out on the field, all the while in need of an X-ray. It’s a trend you would hope will not continue in similar circumstances.
There is wide-angle concern for the Models that can be summed up as follows. Wexford produced some woeful finishing against Laois while Kilkenny blocked down or hooked Dublin on nine occasions. Fitzgerald will want to ensure that one does not feed into the other this Sunday.
Anything bar a hammering will be a decent day’s work for Wexford — though they may do a lot better — and ensuring their goal is well-protected is the key. It has been since Davy learned his lesson in the 2008, with Kilkenny only once scoring three goals against any of his sides since.
Realistically, the Cats don’t have the firepower of old but corner-forward Martin did a fine impersonation of his clubmate Aidan ‘Taggy’ Fogarty against Dublin, so he must be watched. His sharp turns, quick thinking, and tasty striking could lead to Wexford trouble — and it’s from there that confidence shrinks.
A dress rehearsal from a potential Leinster semi-final on June 10th. Fitz will want it; Cody will too. Without the starting fifteens, this game is anyone’s guess.
Clare 4-22 Kilkenny 2-19 - NHL
Kilkenny 2-20 Clare 2-19 - NHL
Kilkenny 1-18 Clare 1-17 - NHL (relegation play-off)
Clare 1-16 Kilkenny 0-18 - NHL
Kilkenny 3-10 Clare 1-15 - NHL
Kilkenny 1-20 Clare 0-14 - NHL
Kilkenny 2-19 Waterford 1-16 - SHC
Kilkenny 2-16 Waterford 1-13 - NHL
Kilkenny 1-20 Waterford 2-12 - NHL
Kilkenny 2-23 Waterford 3-15 - SHC
Waterford 2-17 Kilkenny 1-16 - NHL
Kilkenny 3-30 Waterford 1-13 - SHC