Years of playing and training gifted Cats awesome power

THE Kilkenny hurling juggernaut will head down the road to Walsh Park on Sunday and the All-Ireland champions will have but one thing on their mind – victory.

THE Kilkenny hurling juggernaut will head down the road to Walsh Park on Sunday and the All-Ireland champions will have but one thing on their mind – victory.

And why not after the comprehensive 2-17 to 0-15 win over beaten All-Ireland finalists Tipperary in the first round of the National League when the Cats looked awesome!

In their opening match Waterford lost to Cork in Pairc Ui Rinn, beaten by 3-17 to 0-18. The losers didn’t exactly set the world alight, despite running up a good score, 11 of their points coming during their best spell in the second half, writes John.

While one match presents no true or dependable line of form, all the same Kilkenny’s hurling was so powerful against Tipp that it would be a foolish punter who would back against them.

If Kilkenny set out to lay down a marker at Nowlan Park on Sunday week then they planted an illuminated one that in all probability could be seen from the moon. My gosh, it was some showing and it left Tipp manager, Declan Ryan, wondering where the heck they were going because he admitted they were beaten all over the field, and that after a very good pre-season of preparatory work.

Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody, explained that the Cats hadn’t an awful lot of training behind them. It was the usual stuff, he said. They did a reasonable amount of running, but hurling practise was limited.

The crisp, neat inter-passing hurling produced by his team was, he assured, the players allowing the creative juices to flow, nothing more. For a first round League game, admittedly on a first class pitch and in advantageous weather conditions, the standard of play shocked it was so good.

No one could have expected the free flowing, crisp passing and high tempo game produced by Kilkenny. Okay, there were times, during the second quarter and after Eoin Larkin scored the second goal in the 41st minute, when Tipp gave as good as they got.

But during the times Kilkenny were, as Ali might say, dancing and stinging like a bee, they did awful damage to the opposition. The clear message from Nowlan Park was that Kilkenny mean business this season….again.

Of course, Brian Cody had suggested as much during pre-League interviews when he said Kilkenny would be out to win everything they could. The players added proof to his words going on the showing against Tipp.

A colleague from Offaly that I met during the week wondered were Kilkenny going too well, too early. You see, the story is not as simple as that.

Players love what they do

Another story might help illuminate. During the recent Avonmore press conference to announce the company’s continued support of Kilkenny hurling – senior, minor and intermediate – my colleague Trevor Spillane and I took the opportunity to interview the players who were present. Trevor interviewed Michael Fennelly in one corner. I interviewed Jackie Tyrrell in another.

The common theme from both was that they were mad to get back playing. They had their break. They enjoyed it. But hurling was what they wanted to be doing. The sooner they got back playing the better, they insisted.

The point is these guys love what they are doing. They miss the game if they are away from it for any length of time. Crucially too, they also miss each others company, the banter in the dressing-room, the challenge of working together to drive forward the boundaries of achievement.

Recently in a radio interview with RTE, Noel Hickey insisted that training nowadays was no more demanding than at any time during his career. And he has won eight All-Ireland medals! Other counties talk about demands of hurling, and so on.

You never hear such talk emanating from the Kilkenny camp.

A few years ago Kilkenny trainer/coach, Michael Dempsey introduced us to the then new enough term in the GAA, “lifestyle choice” when extolling the commitment of the current crop of county players. His choice of words weren’t merely a new way of explaining dedication to training, or commitment to the game.

His words told the story as it was, that these guys have made a lifestyle choice to be the absolute best that they can be at the game. The training doesn’t bother them. The commitment of time doesn’t bother them. The pressure of competing consistently at the highest level doesn’t get to them either.

Doing it by choice

They are doing something by choice, and to quote Jackie Tyrrell, they are enjoying doing it together. They want to win everything and anything. Their commitment is over the 12 months of the year, in that they never neglect training, which is largely gym work during the winter.

This continuous work since the players joined the panel - skipper Eoin Larkin and Michael Rice since 2005, J.J. Delaney since 2001, Jackie Tyrrell since 2003, Michael Fennelly since 2006, and Noel Hickey since 2000 and so on and so on – has turned them into strong, powerfully built athletes.

The difference in physique was very noticeable during the M. Donnelly inter-provincial game in the ’Park on Sunday. The Kilkenny players were big and strong, and lean too. It was the same with Ryan O’Dwyer.

Some of the others were, well, carrying a bit of flesh, and they were not nearly as well toned.

Rather than satisfying the appetite, winning has left the Kilkenny players longing for more, determined to win as much as they can while they can. Be it a Walsh Cup, League, Leinster championship or inter-pro medal, the players want it.

The power and drive the 10,500 fans saw at Nowlan Park recently wasn’t the result of Kilkenny’s month or five weeks of training since the turn of the year. The strength of the players, and remember Kilkenny play a high energy, physical game in which strength is a core requirement, has been built-up by following a structured work and gym programme year-on-year since they joined the squad.

Showing too well too early? Sure these guys are only starting, and one means starting!

Not everything will work out right for Kilkenny during the season, we can be sure of that, but equally we can be sure that even on bad days the players will give full value for money.

At the weekend Noel Hickey, Brian Hogan, J.J. Delaney and Richie Hogan were nursing knocks so they all sat out the M. Donnelly inter-provincial game against Connacht. Hogan has a back problem, and he would appear the most doubtful starter against Waterford. The rest should be okay.

Noreside fans will have expectations in every game. But a run of injuries or illness could interrupt the flow at any time. People should remember that. Not even Kilkenny are immune from the hurt that can be inflicted by fate.

The reshaped League doesn’t allow much room for error, so expect Waterford to be all fired up. The Suirsiders can’t afford to lose a second match if they want to be involved in the business end of the competition.

Trying to pick things up against the team of the moment can be a doubled edged sword, inspiring or daunting. Waterford, you can be certain, will let rip from the throw-in. The longer they can keep pace with, or ahead of the opposition, the more their confidence will rise.

However, if they were to be dominated early on, as Tipp were in the ’Park, they could be in trouble, serious trouble. Kilkenny captain, Eoin Larkin and his colleagues enjoyed the way the League opener went.

As a first offering, they set the bar high. Brian Cody and fellow selectors, Michael Dempsey and Martin Fogarty won’t push the players too hard during the League. But that doesn’t mean the players won’t be pushing themselves.

Champions place serious demands on themselves!