I was in Kilkenny for the June bank holiday weekend. The Cats Laughs comedy festival in full swing and the town’s bar and restaurants were buzzing.
The Saturday morning walkaround after a good Friday night was interesting. I lost count of the number of hurls carried around by teenage boys and girls in their black and amber jerseys; the learned old men on the street corners talking about the hopes of the day ahead against Galway in Croke Park on another Leinster SHC final.
Kilkenny is hurling. Hurling is religion. As you visit iconic bars such as Cleere’s, The Field, Kytelers and Harkins to name but a few, the discussion around hurling is never too far away with the regulars or bar staff.
The locals even then were quietly confident of victories to Galway and going to an All-Ireland SHC final. Their unwavering confidence mirrored by a squad of players who have fully committed to Brian Cody. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews Kilkenny’s Senior Hurling team season so far.
After Kilkenny’s All Ireland SHC semi-final loss to Cork after extra time last season, there was rumour that Brian Cody was somehow under pressure as Kilkenny manager.
That was all it was, rumour mill given the record of the manager who has defined intercounty hurling management. Eleven Senior All Ireland’s and then nineteen Leinster SHC title wins as manager with numerous Walsh Cup and NHL titles to the team’s name. Kilkenny have reached the All-Ireland SHC final fourteen of the last eighteen seasons under Brian Cody.
You would have wanted to be a strong person to talk to Brian Cody on managerial change last season based on that exemplary record. Cody is and will not be going anywhere for a very long time.
The Allianz Hurling League represented an opportunity for Brian Cody and management to genuinely run the rule over squad players early in the league campaign. Ballyhale Shamrocks again in an extended club season as they were in All Ireland club action until March.
The 1B league campaign was a good one for Kilkenny. Yes, they started slowly against a very determined Antrim in UPMC Nowlan Park in round one and a narrow loss to close rivals Tipperary in FBD Semple Stadium in round two.
Kilkenny secured marquee wins over Dublin away to send out a statement of intent ahead of the championship and thumped a fancied Waterford side at home. Laois stood no chance in round three.
Keoghan starting to show his goal scoring prowess in those games along with the switch of Padraig Walsh to the half-forward line. We saw a resurgent Walter Walsh in the half forward line and the emergence of Mikey Butler as a standout full back unit option. Cian Kenny impressed, the rotation of the squad no issue for Cody and players alike.
Kilkenny’s Allianz Hurling league campaign concluded with a semi-final loss to Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Kilkenny’s fast start exposing Cork defensively. Keoghan with two goals in this encounter but Cork’s run game and bench impact sufficient to win by 1-27 to 2-20. Kilkenny’s performance subdued in the final quarter; the question of squad depth raised but Kilkenny were content on the league. It had served its purpose and provided notes for management ahead of the championship.
Kilkenny’s fixture schedule saw two games against Westmeath and Laois. Westmeath provided good resistance for the opening half, but Kilkenny put on the afterburners. The Ballyhale Shamrocks contingent back. TJ Reid to the fore. 5-23 scored with the third quarter a blitzkrieg on Westmeath.
Kilkenny followed up this result with a routine home win over Laois. The story of the game was Adrian Mullen and Eoin Cody who combined for a collective 1-11 from play. Two standout players. Laois restricted to 1-8 from play as Kilkenny won this fixture 2-34 to 1-14. Tougher tests lie ahead.
The leadup to this third-round fixture was the battle between Henry Shefflin and Brian Cody. Two men who enjoyed massive success in Kilkenny. Shefflin taking on the Galway Senior Hurling job was a move to some in Kilkenny which was treachery.
The fixture did not disappoint as both sides had good moments. 1-24 to 3-17 and a contentious free to settle the fixture deep into injury time. Cody incensed. The handshake was long and intense. Kilkenny showing goal threat but also showing vulnerability with Galway’s forward line scoring 0-10 from play.
A road trip to Parnell Park awaited Kilkenny against Dublin who were unbeaten heading into this fixture. Kilkenny firmly put this game to bed early. Keoghan (2) and TJ Reid goals more than enough to secure victory against Dublin 3-25 to 0-17. The dominance of all lines for Kilkenny stood out. Dublin full forward line all subbed before the last ten minutes of the contest.
The round robin fixtures saw Wexford arrive to UPMC Nowlan Park. Wexford in last chance saloon territory where Kilkenny were assured qualification provided results did not go to not drastically. Wexford played with more urgency, refused to allow Kilkenny settle. Kilkenny only 1-7 from open play. TJ Reid chipped in with 0-10 points from free. Billy Ryan with a side-line cut. A disjointed performance where Wexford ran from deep and ten different point scorers on the night from play.
Wexford qualified for the All-Ireland Series. Kilkenny advanced to the Leinster SHC final but a reality check for management and squad ahead of the provincial final against round robin ranked Galway.
Leinster SHC Final
This is where Kilkenny has progressively improved. The time between round robin and provincial final plus the four week break to the provincial final has provided Kilkenny the time to train and address issues in their play.
The support running improved no end against Galway who did create goal chances early but after the second quarter, Kilkenny picked off the scores and shut down the Galway forward line unit. Mikey Butler, Paddy Deegan and the rest of the back line unit immense.
Henry Shefflin humbled by Kilkenny who were not going to be denied Bob O’Keefe. This was a performance full of work rate, determination and skill set with or without the sliothar. Physicality was to the fore. Brian Cody’s celebrations spoke volumes, a huge win for the season.
All Ireland SHC semi-final
The All-Ireland series played out and Kilkenny knuckled down with intense training sessions. The performance levels increased, the conditioning of the players on point and the first touch immaculate in a complete demolition of Clare in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Clare did get plenty wrong on the day but take absolutely nothing away from Kilkenny. Yes, Clare was wasteful (24 wides) and clueless in middle third possession but Kilkenny’s ability to win turnover ball was incredible.
Clare’s run game never materialized. How many times did you see a Clare player just about to put the sliothar to the hurl for a long solo run only to be dispossessed by a flick of a Kilkenny hurl? It was coaching manual 101.
Mikey Butler assigned to man mark Tony Kelly. Shane Reck from Wexford previously had put the shackles on Kelly in the All-Ireland quarter final for long periods. Butler did a complete man marking job on Kelly from start to finish. Kilkenny asked Clare the question; what was your plan B?
There was none. Shane O’Donnell scored four points but all other forward and middle third options were completely negated. Clare panicked, delivered high hopeless ball into a beleaguered full forward line and shot with panic. Kilkenny dominated in the air and on the second ball.
Kilkenny did not have to get out of third gear. The game was over at half-time. Keoghan and Kenny with a goal each. Kilkenny exploiting mismatches in the Clare half-back line rattled by the absence of John Conlon. Fitzpatrick exposed as Kenny, Mullen and Reid created overlaps and scored at will. The second half was just to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Mission accomplished.
The anticipated intensity semi-final never materialized. Kilkenny not under pressure. They will come into this All-Ireland final full of confidence. The Ballyhale Shamrocks contingent are playing well at the right time of year. Richie Reid has slotted into the half-back line superbly well.
Eoin Cody, Adrian Mullen and TJ Reid are firing on all cylinders. Conor Browne and Cian Kenny have struck together a superb midfield partnership and then you throw Cody and Mullen into the middle third to create pockets and it is a formidable midfield threat.
Kilkenny have evolved their style. The traditional fundamentals are still there but there is an evolution in their passing and support running lines from deep. The long ball in is now deliberate and will be executed when the time requires it. Brian Cody and Kilkenny have evolved, and this is a county who love to thwart three in a row bids – any Cork fan will tell you that.
Only a standout performance from Limerick will secure that accolade as Brian Cody has assembled and created another quality county side to contend for top honors. Brian Cody. Simply the best!