Hawkeye Sidekick

Where now for Kilkenny Senior Hurlers?

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Kilkenny Senior Hurlers gone for a while

As Waterford were breaking a fifty-eight year championship hoodoo in eliminating Kilkenny out of this year’s All Ireland Senior Hurling championship, debate started on whether this is the end for Kilkenny senior hurlers for the considerable future. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the evidence.

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Tough year ends for Brian Cody

Does the team fortunes get worse before they get better?

A pivotal question to be answered in the coming months as current county panel players mull over their intercounty careers. Do they sacrifice everything from next October in the quest to pursue Liam McCarthy glory? There are a couple of players in this current panel who may decide to walk.

Let us not forget that talented John Power walked off the panel a couple of weeks ago and there is no guarantee of a return with Cody in charge. Michael Fennelly and Kieran Joyce may be the players that could call time. Fennelly was admirable this season considering his horrific injury last season but Waterford exposed his lack of game time in the middle of the park.

Kieran Joyce may look to exit the panel because of lack of game time this season. The former center back has struggled to hold down his position in the side and with the likes of Cleere lying in wait to fill the six jersey, the Rower Inistioge club man may feel it is time to hang up the Kilkenny jersey.

Potential massive leadership losses to compound last season’s retirements of legendary corner back Jackie Tyrell and wing forward maestro Eoin Larkin. You don’t produce players like that every day of the week and Kilkenny will struggle to fill those voids in the short term.

Does Brian Cody continue?

Another key question ahead of next season. Brian Cody owes nothing to Kilkenny hurling; his accolade and roll of honors is beyond reproach. Cody’s coaching skills could not prevent a struggling Kilkenny side to an early championship exit. The players on duty gave it their all as always for the jersey but there was a lack of cohesion and quality about the side this season.

The forward line units misfired for large parts of the season. A side known for their ability to score goals and put teams to the sword has being sorely lacking this season in the championship. A key point from last weekend was the conversation between Michael Fennelly and Brian Cody during the contest and the subsequent reintroduction of misfiring Richie Hogan back to the forward line.

I don’t recall Cody ever taking council from a player to make a selection like this. How must the rest of the backroom staff have felt? Fennelly and Cody were calling the shots on a critical substitution. The switch never had the desired effect. Hogan continued to struggle and Kilkenny were a well beaten outfit come the end of extra time.

When you consider that Cody called the shots in the All Ireland semi-final and final (no backroom staff in sight), you begin to wonder on what may be going on with the legendary manager and his relationship with his fellow selectors.

An interesting off-season beckons for Cody. This season was supposed to be a season of redemption. A season where the Kilkenny team would rise and reach the summit with a Liam McCarthy success. Kilkenny never threatened in the championship and despite a hard earned win against Limerick, the side were struggling for tempo and form.

The result last weekend on reflection was not a shock. It was an inevitable result given the squad depth at Cody’s disposal. Does Cody have the motivation to effectively rebuild a new team next season because in effect that is what is required? No-one can preempt Cody’s decision but there are question marks on his future after how this season has gone.

If Cody departs, poison chalice

If the unthinkable happened and Brian Cody walked away from the Kilkenny setup, who would take over? It is the proverbial poison chalice truth be told. Who would want to take on the role and be automatically compared with the great Cody? Candidates may be slow to come to the mix. James McGarry, Eddie Brennan, Jackie Tyrell come to mind. It will be a mission impossible job for whoever takes it on. The Kilkenny board will not force Cody out but the contingency plans surely have started considering the disappointing season just past. Intriguing end of the year beckons.

Underage success provides optimism

Kilkenny underage hurling is still prolifically strong. One look at the Senior Schools where St.Kieran’s and Kilkenny CBS are typically in the Leinster and All Ireland shakeup. The clean sweep of the underage intercounty titles in Leinster with comprehensive victories for Kilkenny in minor and U21 teams.

When you add the victory of the Kilkenny intermediate team last season, the talent pool is strong but it is one thing having potential, it is a whole different story when this talent is tested at senior level; the true acid test of a player’s credentials.

There are several players within these groups who will stake their claim for the senior side in time. Cleere, Carey, Ronan, Leahy, Mullen, Reid will be names that you will hear much more about in time. Blanchfield, Bergin, Aylward need to step up to the plate next season to provide scoring power to take the pressure off the likes of TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly who were superb for the county again this term.

The future is bright but the players mentioned may need a season or two to bed into the intercounty ranks and results may get worse before they get better. Kilkenny are like Kerry or Dublin in Gaelic Football; they won’t be down for long.

Squad Depth Issues

The current squad were wholly exposed in all areas of the field apart from goalkeeper where Eoin Murphy was solid. The full back line at times was isolated and the unit never played with any gusto or confidence. The decision to deploy Padraic Walsh at full-back never worked but it indicated the issues that Kilkenny faced this season. With Joey Holden exposed last season in the All Ireland Hurling final, there were no standout replacements in the ranks. Walsh was an emergency last ditch measure and the aerial and physical presence in the full back line suffered. Walsh is a half-back / midfielder. The half-back line struggled at times in the aerial exchanges. Lee Chin’s display for Wexford in the Leinster SHC semi-final emphasized those issues.

The half-back position was a problem position for Cody to fill. Buckley at the end admirably filled the role but gaps and space opened up in front of the full back line where Jamie Barron reveled last weekend. The midfield area was urging Michael Fennelly to return to the fold; signs of the squad depth issues in the unit. Fennelly’s long injury layoff was evident this season but the player’s commitment, experience and tactical nous could not be denied. Paddy Deegan had flashes of brilliance but too often was exposed by elite midfielders such as Chin, Barron. An area where Kilkenny need to identify options quickly. Lester Ryan was consigned to a role off the bench but you would wonder why considering some eye-catching performances this season in the championship.

The half-forward line suffered due to the retirement of Eoin Larkin; to say otherwise is wholly misleading. Larkin’s link up play and ability to score a couple of points from play was so missed this season. Walter Walsh tried to take on the mantle but with an out of sorts Richie Hogan alongside, the half forward line lacked guile and threat throughout the season. Hogan’s injury problems were a huge factor in his disappointing season. The question is whether Hogan will recover physically to rediscover his best form for the county next season.

The full forward line was dependent on Colin Fennelly to make things happen in open play. Fennelly could not try any harder than he did; scoring and setting up goal chances. TJ Reid was lights out on his free taking and penalties. Ger Aylward, Liam Blanchfield. Mark Bergin all struggled to make an impact. As mentioned Leahy looks like a genuine star and will be propelled into the senior ranks next season. As you can see, a lot of issues to sort out in the off-season and there does not appear to be any short term fixes.

Summary

Kilkenny will dust themselves down, reflect on the season and try to come back strong. I suspect that there will be further key playing departures in the coming months which will deplete the squad short term. Kilkenny are back in the chasing pack and this season saw teams play with no fear against the Black & Amber. Limerick for their limitations forced Kilkenny to deep extremely deep in the opening qualifier round. Cody’s future is a key question ahead of next season and if the legendary manager decides to stay on, he will have his work cut out to get Kilkenny back to the senior hurling summit. Young talent in abundance but until these players are exposed to senior ranks, it is potential and not guaranteed additions to the panel. The rest of the country will look on with increased interest on the developments in Kilkenny come the end of the year.