These players of iron will simply refuse to be broken

THE Kilkenny players unleashed everything they had to offer in Croke Park on Sunday and that was why they ended up being crowned All-Ireland hurling champions for a second successive season, writes John Knox.

THE Kilkenny players unleashed everything they had to offer in Croke Park on Sunday and that was why they ended up being crowned All-Ireland hurling champions for a second successive season, writes John Knox.

The players could have been crushed by the bitter disappointment of going within a whisker of winning the final three weeks ago when they were caught in additional time, but they refused to be broken.

“These players have made a career out of not letting things break them,” insisted Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody, who was as proud as punch of his squad after a terrific ninth All-Ireland victory in his 14 season reign.

“That was an excellent performance,” added the man who has been at the helm since 1999. “The players were outstanding from start to finish, and they had to be.”

He said the replayed final was a seriously intense game between two well prepared, hugely talented and determined teams.

“The performance of the players, the work-rate of the players, the intensity they brought to the game was everything we had hoped it would be,” he said.

“We caught hold of the game from the start. That was the key, I suppose. We didn’t do that against Galway in the two previous matches, in the Leinster final and the drawn match three weeks ago.

Huge determination

“In some ways things weren’t much different, though. We were still hit by two early goals from Galway. But the response to that setback was superb from the players, all of them.”

The victory was achieved thanks to a huge, huge team effort, nothing less, the James Stephens clubman insisted.

“There was a huge determination right through the whole camp to get things right this time,” the boss continued. “Credit to everyone concerned. Some might forget that three weeks ago we were within 30 seconds of claiming victory and the cup.

“We didn’t. We had to come back and do it all over again. We did and we achieved victory in a massive way.

“That sort of thing, the huge disappointment it was, could break you. But you don’t let it break you. That is the key. These players have made a career out of not letting things break them.”

While the players met the challenge head on, management helped open the route to victory by picking a most interesting team that offered a debut to Walter Walsh and also included his under-21 county colleague, Cillian Buckley. In the case of the former, it was his first time over the 70 minute course.

That was daring, it was suggested.

“We didn’t look on it like that at all,” Cody explained. “If it were the first round of the Leinster championship and Walter was picked everyone would be talking about him making his debut. Because it wasn’t, and it was in an All-Ireland final, suddenly there was surprise and people were aghast and wondering what was going on.

“He was asked to go out and play. It is all about a game of hurling at the end of the day. There are pressures involved and people react differently to different pressures.

Brought training form to Croker

“At the end of the day you have to bring what you have to the game. That is all we wanted Walter to do, to bring exactly what he has, what he has been doing in training to the game. He brought every bit of it.

“That is the reason he started. That is the reason he did so well, and Cillian did well too by doing exactly the same.”

Coping with the well rehearsed and tight Galway plan of packing that area of the field around their half-back line/midfield was another huge obstacle Kilkenny surmounted. The Galway plan worked in the Leinster final, and also in the drawn game three weeks ago, when Kilkenny won little breaking ball in this vital sector.

“We went out and played,” was the response from Cody to the suggestion. “That is all you can do. You can talk about it forever, what you did and what you didn’t do, but at the end of the day the match is won and lost out on the pitch.

“The players decide matches. Thanks be to God we have the type of players who have made a career out of deciding matches, working out ways of winning them in the most difficult, trying and pressure filled situations.

“You always have a pride in your performance, and a real pride in the jersey you are wearing. You always want to play as well as you possibly can. That ambition is always there.

“They bring everything they have to the challenge. They are honest. They are genuine. They have talent in abundance. They are serious, serious men.

“It didn’t happen for some the last day, but they stepped up on their performance this time. That is what you expect.

“I would have been amazed if that hadn’t happened. That was the way it went. That is the kind of players they are, the kind of driven players we are lucky to have. A number of players were unhappy with their performance in the drawn match. They went out utterly determined to do something about it this time.

“You always have a pride in your performance, and a real pride in the jersey you are wearing. You always want to play as well as you possibly can. That ambition is always there.

Made things happen

“Players don’t always achieve it. They will have good days, average days and bad days. That is sport, life too. Hurling on big days like this is about nerve and a lot more besides. Our players, by the strength of their will, made big, big things happen today.”

And Henry Shefflin and Noel Hickey claimed a ninth winners’ medal each. That was some achievement?

“That is a tribute to the two boys,” Brian insisted. “It is unique for Henry to win them all on the field, and Noel won nearly all his on the field too. It is important he (Noel) is not forgotten about, because his contribution has been immense.

The ultimate

“Henry’s achievement is the ultimate. He brings every single ounce of what he has to offer to the table. That is why he is where he is. That is why he has those medals.

“He has never faltered. He has never been less than 100% committed. Everything he has he has earned it.”

So, even at the ninth time of having the experience, did the feeling of victory at the final whistle change?

“No,” he smiled. “It is the best. It is the best.”

And so then, what about the future?

“The All-Ireland will take place next year, and it will be there for somebody,” he smiled again. “Who know who will be around next year? I have no idea, but we will enjoy this one.”