In the aftermath of Sunday’s demolition job on Tipperary, you might have forgiven Brian Cody for allowing himself a little celebration of one of the performances of the season, writes Sam Matthews.
That galling Leinster final has proven but a hiccup along the road to another Sunday in September, and the performance last weekend showed the Cats are firing on all cylinders. But as is his wont, Cody has his eyes on the horizon, and celebrations will remain muted until the job is done.
If all goes to plan, the annihilation of Tipp, however sweet, will merely be a footnote to the season’s success. The biggest test is yet to come.
“I am acutely conscious of the fact that it was a means to an end,” said Cody, immediately after the game.
“The prize today was to get to an All-Ireland final.”
Tipperary’s total disintegration in the second half cannot detract from the quality that Kilkenny brought for 70 minutes. The Black and Amber men went into the dressing rooms at half time behind, but they had played with pace, skill and determination. All the same, few could have predicted the clinical second half annihilation of the Premier in the manner it happened.
“We were a point down, but it wasn’t the fact that we were playing badly or not creating chances,” said Cody.
“We picked it up in the second half, we got into the game early and got two quick points. We settled, and the backs really got strong, and the forwards created some more terrific chances and took them well.”
When everyone’s favourite topic of the day came up – namely, the Corbett-on-Walsh conjoined twin scenario – the Kilkenny manager appeared to be as bemused as everyone else.
“It’s understandable that Lar would be a player that teams are inclined to man mark – we did it last year and Jackie was marking Lar,” he said.
“It’s very strange to see Lar being the man marker, which essentially is what it appeared to be almost. But it’s not for me to comment on their tactics. We had decided what we were doing, and obviously they were trying to do something else.”
“I’m obviously not privy to what the Tipp boys wanted to do, but it appears that he was trying to get onto Tommy or whatever. It was just something that happened in front of our eyes, and it had to be played out.”
Tipperary manager Declan Ryan, meanwhile, was initially defensive about what many considered an unusual – even bizarre – choice of tactics. However, referencing the scale of the defeat, he was prepared to concede it had gone badly wrong.
“[Corbett] had been picked at number 12 and Tommy [Walsh] was there at number 5, so I suppose for ideal match ups that was the plan,” he said.
“Lar would pick up Tommy and obviously Jackie Tyrrell didn’t agree and he wanted a piece of it as well.”
The Tipp manager insisted that it appeared to work out during the first half, but that there had been no room to manoeuvre inside the full forward line during the second 35 minutes.
“Tommy Walsh finished the game, his last 20 minutes was probably his best period of the game,” he said.
“I don’t know how good he was in the first half. I suppose, ultimately, results prove that it backfired to some extent on us.”
And yet, Declan Ryan looked utterly resigned to his defeat. In the same post-match conference room last September, he had looked devastated – upset and shellshocked. Now, he simply seemed exhausted. A weary acceptance: His team weren’t good enough then, they certainly weren’t good enough now.
“The better team won, obviously, by a mile,” he admitted.
“We can have no complaints. We competed well for the first 35 minutes, but they swarmed us in the second half and we really had no answers to their physicality.”
He himself had no answers; he seemed genuinely unable to explain how it could have gone so badly wrong.
“We were very happy at half time,” he said.
“I don’t know what happened – we seemed to lose our shape a little, and Kilkenny seemed to win every breaking ball. Our guys have been finishing games very strongly all year. I don’t know where today’s last 20 minutes came out of.”
And then, the inevitable subject of his own future. His two year deal is finished now, along with his selectors.
“We’ll have to wait and see with county board, the county chairman and the backroom team as a whole,” he said.
“Today isn’t the day to be making any decisions.”
Likewise, this mantra extends the rest of the team. Ryan was overt in his pleas to the panel to wait and see – to allow time to heal a few wounds before considering calling time.
“The older guys have been fabulous warriors for the blue and gold jersey and we are all very proud of them in Tipperary,” he said.
“It certainly wouldn’t be a good time for anyone to be making any rash decisions.”
Whatever about Tipp’s weary soldiers, Kilkenny’s job now is to ensure as fully-fit a team as possible for September 9. Brian Hogan was back to his best on Sunday, but midfield may prove more problematic. Michael Fennelly is making strides towards his imperious form of this time last year, but another hand injury to Michael Rice (his fingers must be cursed) is a cause for concern. Rice had to go to hospital to have the wound treated.
“He had a very serious cut the whole way down his finger – a bad, deep cut,” said his manager.
“He wouldn’t go off unless he had no hope of playing on. I just hope he will be back in the frame because he is a very important player for us.”
Back in the frame indeed, and he will have little more than a fortnight to do so. It is Galway to whom the Kilkenny bainisteoir must now turn his thoughts.
“We expect a phenomenal game from them again,” he said.
“Look at the quality of players they have – they are outstanding hurlers with skill, athleticism. They have everything you need in a team, they have leaders as well and outstanding individuals. But we have the same.”
The same, and (some would say), more. For all Galway’s talent and household names – their inter-county appearances come September have been sparse. The last time they were here was 2005. The last time they won was 1988.
Contrast to Kilkenny. The backbone of this team, with the same general at the helm, has been here every year in the last decade, except 2005 – when they lost to Galway in the semi-final.
“We would accept that, ok we have that experience, but it’s not something we would expect to make a huge difference,” says Cody.
“All those [Galway] players definitely have huge experience – underage, minor, under-21 success – they are very talented players. Some of them have had huge successes in club championship finals as well. They are used to playing at the top grade.”
It is fitting that the final opponents should be the Tribesmen. An opportunity for ‘La Revanche du Chats’.
The wounds from that earlier defeat – when for the first time since 2004, Kilkenny failed in Leinster – are still healing. That fateful July day, when Galway posted a 10-point blitz of the Cats, Kilkenny did not seem themselves.
The James Stephens schoolmaster says it would be pointless to dwell on the result and performance in the Leinster final, save to learn from mistakes and move on. September 9 will be an altogether different prospect.
“This year’s Leinster final is played; it’s over and done with and we can never win it,” said Cody.
“They will obviously try and replicate and even improve on their Leinster final performance – and maybe they will do that.
“We will just have to make a crazy improvement on our Leinster final perfomance to have a chance of winning the game. I’m not going to start talking about blowing them up or blowing us down at the moment, but it has the makings of a terrific game.”