A SOLID run in the closing stages, three wins and a place in the semi-final stages of the National Hurling League secured.
It was easy to see why Kilkenny boss Brian Cody cut a contented figure following Sunday’s win over Cork.
What was also pleasing was how the team had responded to their two opening defeats in the league, bouncing back with three wins to end the group stage in style.
“The pressure was on us,” Cody admitted. “We were in a situation where we had lost the first two games so we couldn’t afford to drop any more points - if we did we were gone. We had to win the three games in a row.
“Although we lost the first two games it wasn’t by much. We were decent in those games, up to a point.
“When our backs were to the wall, and we had to come out and win three on the trot against teams who were going very well the response was good. We have achieved that. Now we have three weeks to a league semi-final.
“That’s something we weren’t looking too optimistic for a few weeks ago.”
The road to the final four was tough, but Kilkenny were ready.
“We started off with a win over Waterford in what was a fierce tight game,” Cody recalled. “It was the same against Clare and Cork.
“That was good though,” he added. “They were three tough games. Had we been any less resilient in those matches we would not have won. It was a good way to get into the semi-final.”
Kilkenny had to win those last three games to make the latter stages of the competition and avoid a potential relegation pitfall. At times it’s almost as if the Cats relish making things harder on themselves!
“The reality was that if we’d lost to Cork we could have been in a relegation battle, which nobody wants,” he said. “The response to that was good, so too the result. We are still alive in this League. We have a huge semi-final against Galway coming up in the next few weeks so we’ll have to take things from there.”
Given that both the Cats and the Rebels had something to play for going into the last day, the Kilkenny boss wasn’t surprised by Cork’s performance, and their intensity.
“I was impressed by Cork,” he said. “In their first game in the League they did the very same to Tipperary - they were massive in that game. They have very skilful hurlers and serious pace around the field. They are a serious team.
“It would have been a great game to watch, so it was pretty exciting to win a game which could have gone either way,” he added. “Cork were very, very good and tested us to the limits. We fell behind in the second half but the reaction to that was very good. We finished well.”
Better yet, Kilkenny came back to win having struggled to find their form at stages in the first half.
“We were sluggish early on,” he admitted. “We were making mistakes but that’s ok. We were doing well to be level at half-time as we could have been a few points behind but we finished the half a bit better. The second half was better.”
That new half wasn’t without its own challenges, not least Luke Farrell’s quick salvo of 1-1 which saw Cork steal back in front.
“The team reacted well to the Cork goal, knuckling down and incresing their workrate, but overall it was a good game,” he said. “It was a good game of hurling where Cork contributed as much as we did.
“Overall I’m happy to have won the game,” he added. “Everyone had to knuckle down and put in the work, otherwise we wouldn’t have come away with the result as we did. Cork were very sharp. We had to dig it out and fight, but it was good to see that that resolve is there in the team.”
And Cody was quick to acknowledge that the pace of the game was more akin to championship form, an incredible feat for the end of March.
“There was great pace to the game, but it’s only going to get quicker from here on,” he said. “Things become more intense as the year goes on.”
What will also become more intense is the competition for starting places in the Kilkenny team. Cody and his selectors, Martin Fogarty and Micheal Dempsey, used 25 players across the five group games. They were more than happy with what they had seen.
“It’s been a great opportunity for the players who have played so far,” said Cody. “Looking at that number of players means we’re looking at the quality of our panel; that’s everything for us at this time of year. Now the job is to push on over the next three weeks and look forward to the league semi-final. That game will be another test for whoever gets to play.”
It also throws up a selection headache, given the number of young players trying to force their way in.
No other way
“We wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “To have team selection headaches when you’re looking from a strength point of view is brilliant. The other aspect (injuries) isn’t what anyone wants!”
The Kilkenny manager has three weeks to run the rule over his players ahead of that meeting with Galway, an old foe who could become even more familiar before the season is over. Typically, the Cats are already looking forward to the game.
“It’s going to be a great game for everyone concerned,” the manager added. “Both of us are playing in the Leinster championship further down the road - we could be looking at a potential meeting there too, who knows? But, it will be a great game to look forward to.”