THE drama and excitement of the All-Ireland final might not be as great among fans as in recent years, but as far as Kilkenny captain Brian Hogan is concerned it’s business as usual for the players.
“There haven’t been any changes in terms of preparing for the game,” he said. “Maybe with the talk of the five in a row gone there’s been less hype and hysteria about the place.”
Reaching an All-Ireland final builds up a bit of excitement, but as far as the players are concerned the job never changes.
“A lot of it is still the same, but the players will always try and make sure they keep their focus, both individually and when they come into training,” he said. “You have to blank out the exterior stuff before the big games and get on with your own job.”
Mention of the five in a row brought up the chance to talk about the expectation on the players. Gauging the mood in the Kilkenny camp, the pressure doesn’t seem to be as great as in 2010, when everyone was blocking out the word ‘five’. Has that weight been lifted off the players’ shoulders?
“Personally, I didn’t feel any added pressure,” he said. “Maybe some lads did; from the start of the year the media hype was all about how Kilkenny would be aiming for a fifth All-Ireland in a row. When it comes to the day it’s an All-Ireland. Hype and everything associated with it is nothing new – we’re well used to it.
“It hasn’t bothered me one way or the other,” he added. “I’ve always tried to buy into the mantra that it’s a new year, an All-Ireland in its own right. Everything else will take care of itself. You try not to get too caught up in everything else that comes with the game because you can lose your focus very quickly.”
However, it’s impossible to escape all the clamour when you live and work in a hurling-mad county.
“You’re out and about with people, you have to work, so of course you hear plenty of talk,” he said. “I would have come across it before with the team that won three All-Irelands in a row; you learn a lot from that.
“Moving on through 2009 and last year you hear the same stuff, but you just let it one ear and out the other. You try not to buy into things, you just make sure your own game is right and that you’re focused. At the end of the day, all you want to do as a player is make sure you’re on the field playing and, ultimately, to make sure your team wins the game. The rest is academic.”
It’s funny to hear a long-serving player – not to mention current captain – talk about fighting for his place!
“Brian brought in a few of the younger lads again this year (players like Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly), some fine hurlers from the under-21 team. That in itself is great because the energy and enthusiasm they bring into the set-up helps give the side a lift and pushes you on. The older lads (I suppose I fall into that category now – you’d feel old watching them run around the place!) we tend to feed off that energy. It’s great to have it, but you always start at Base One come January and try to build from there.”
The team has been steadily building all year, not least in their semi-final clash with Waterford. While Kilkenny might not have hit the heights expected of them - the same was said of Tipp in their semi-final - as far as Hogan was concerned both teams did the job they had to.
“It was a good match to get, but Tipp had a tough match against Dublin themselves,” he said. “Semi-finals are there to be won; nothing more, nothing less. If you romp home you’re built up, whereas if you struggle you’re written off. You’re going to be playing against quality opposition, but all you want to do is get through.”
Much has been made of the great form shown by Tipp’s forwards in 2011. That’s something that Hogan and his defensive colleagues don’t need to be told about it.
“They are a class outfit – just look at the scores they racked up,” he said. “They are a threat from everywhere on the field, but we’ll approach the game as we have every other in the last few years, making sure we’re right, physically and mentally.”
The conversation flashed back to 2010 and the mood in the dressing-room after the final whistle. On a day of swirling emotions Hogan described a room where players, numbed by shock, didn’t take much in.
“There probably were some things said in the dressing-room which would act as motivation to get back to the final, but a lot of what went on is a blur,” he said. “You’re caught up in the emotional side of defeat and you find yourself going around talking to players.
“Other lads might be talking to you too but you remember nothing of it; in your own head you’re just disappointed. It’s not a nice place to be, but within a few weeks you’re back in club action. When you fall off a horse you just get up and get back on. That’s sport.”
The losers’ dressing-room is a place Kilkenny have not been used to in recent years. That in itself acted as a spur to drive the players on.
“This bunch of players don’t like losing, regardless of what we had won in previous years,” said Hogan. “It was hugely disappointing, but we couldn’t have any complaints as Tipp were the better team on the day. All we could do was regroup and build for this year.”