Conor Fogarty can be a major force for Kilkenny going forward. Pic: Eoin Hennessy
Back in 2013, the last time Kilkenny failed to make the business end of the All-Ireland hurling championship, one player voiced a less than happy opinion about having to watch the remaining teams battling it out for ‘Liam’.
It was a strange feeling, he insisted, and one he did not want to relive again. Hearing the plaudits heaped on Clare for their fast, direct brand of hurling annoyed a bit too.
Clare were young. They were fearless. They represented the brave new world that hurling found itself in.
By inference, what had gone before wasn't as good.
Fast forward to 2017. There are a few things that have changed, and a few that have stayed the same.
Normal service resumed in 2014 and 2015 for Kilkenny as two All-Ireland titles were claimed.
This year, however, the resemblance to 2013 is uncanny. Kilkenny were given their earliest marching orders in the Brian Cody era and Cork hurling seems to be on an upsurge since their All-Ireland final cameo four years earlier.
Sure, Clare are not the force they were back then, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Wexford and Waterford have driven forward.
What better way for Waterford to shove their way to the front of the line of All-Ireland contenders than by knocking out Kilkenny?
Still it is interesting to hear pundits suggest that having Kilkenny out of the race is like an extra training session, such is the lift it gives other teams. It suggested that though they were not be playing well, you can never write off Brian Cody or his team.
It is not easy to begin contemplating what happened this year, why Kilkenny’s campaign ended before it even began.
It may not be possible to gain any real answers until Winter has set in, and everyone is in serious reflective mood.
The only bonus for Kilkenny now is they have been handed plenty of time for the club championship, which will provided a much needed re-focus for the county players.
There is nothing that sharpens the minds better than going back to your parish with the possibility of winning a county title or having a shot at a higher grade next season as part of the agenda.
We know the Kilkenny club scene provides a real platform for new talent to shine. Eoin Larkin, Lester Ryan, more recently Paddy Deegan were all players who got noticed by playing well with their club.
It says as much about how competitive every grade in Kilkenny’s club scene is that Brian Cody can say: “Even if you are a star under-age, if you tip along nicely with your club, be a leader for your colleagues then you have just as good a chance at making it.”
However, as much as Kilkenny would be happy to introduce a couple of players into their panel after a competitive club season, the emergence of the under-21s’ this year has been a source of great comfort to fans.
Think of this grade as a finishing school before you enter the dazzling lights of the senior inter-county scene.
It’s your last chance to win an All-Ireland at under-age level and prove you have that winning mentality.
Kilkenny won their first Leinster title since 2012, and now have a chance at getting into an All-Ireland final. Munster, as ever, sing an interesting tune but there is no reason why Kilkenny cannot put it up to anyone left in the hunt.
One of the differences noticeable within the squad this year as opposed to recent times is the experience of the players.
Many of them have been training and playing with the senior squad for a couple of years. The benefit that has added to their performances has been clear to see.
The likes of Richie Leahy, Jason Cleere and Liam Blanchfield, all players who have featured in the National League or championship, have been really instrumental in Kilkenny’s resurgence this year.
It has become a common trend in the under-21 grade in recent years that the teams that have done well have had their players featuring with their senior teams. That it is something that is happening here now.
The minor team are also making strides in the championship, having picked up a Leinster title.
The performances of Adrian Mullen and Sean Ryan have gained attention as they have steamrolled their way through every defence encountered. Good signs from a black and amber perspective.
Perhaps the blessing in disguise for Brian Cody is the gift of time to gain perspective.
Should he decide that his appetite for success has not been sated and he wants to continue, he has plenty of time to gather his thoughts. With time comes space to think, to reflect.
Past performances and results cannot be changed, and they will probably be forgotten quickly by players. What will be reflected upon is the lessons learned this year and what changes might need to be made.
The sweeper system employed by Wexford and Waterford troubled Kilkenny greatly this season. Chances are Kilkenny will encounter it even more regularly in the future.
The only way to move forward is to develop a plan, a universal plan that plays to your strengths but that blots out the sweeper’s influence.
The curious feature about Kilkenny’s campaign was they seemed to play the game on the other team’s terms, rather than bossing things themselves.
It seemed that Kilkenny lacked the confidence and swagger to do so. To win an All-Ireland, it is not enough to turn up with a plan.
You need to believe you can win, even if you are staring down the barrel of a gun. In fairness to Waterford, they did that against the Cats.
They could easily have folded when Kilkenny came back at them in the second half of the quarter-final.
They took the knock and went on to win in extra time. Why? Because they believed they could!
There are five and a half months between now and January. That period offers plenty of time for us all to gain perspective and learn the hard lessons from 2017.
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