Walter Walsh was a huge ball winner against Clare
If the penny hadn’t already dropped for Kilkenny supporters, by around 2.40pm at Nowlan Park on Sunday they’ll have been well and truly acquainted with reality.
New reality. Harsh reality. The kind of reality that will govern Brian Cody’s team and its doings for the foreseeable future.
The scoreboard read 2-12 to 1-7 in Clare’s favour. Bad enough, one might have thought from a Noreside angle, but what the scoreboard didn’t tell was even more discomfiting.
The first half finished with eight Clare men having scored a point from play. The corresponding number for their opponents? One man. And he a sub. And that in the third minute of injury time. And there was an entire new 35-minute instalment to come, with every chance that things would get worse rather than get better.
In the event they didn’t. Get worse, that is. Half-time arrived at just the right juncture, the substitutions Kilkenny made had already helped to staunch the blood loss and on the resumption they slowly and painfully dragged themselves back into proceedings, making a contest out of what had been a one-horse race.
With a little luck they might even have sneaked an improbable draw at the end. It was better off that they didn’t do so. Good results should be the outcome of good performances, and this was not a good performance.
There’s plenty of things we know about Cody, foremost among them being that the notion of a moral victory would be an affront to everything he stands for. In Sunday’s circumstances, however, to finish within a puck of the ball of Clare at least represented something to take from the game and build on for the future.
The plus points will have been far outweighed by the worries, of course. Clare are neither a big team nor a physical team, John Conlon apart, but they bossed the possession stakes. What was obvious eight days earlier on Leeside was even more apparent here. Kilkenny are going to find winning possession, and protecting it, a horribly difficult task this year.
For the moment Walter Walsh will continue to plough a lone - and lonely - physical furrow up front. With 65 minutes gone he was the only starting Kilkenny forward who’d managed a point from play. Upon which Richie Leahy became the second starting forward to manage a point from play, and this was apt indeed because Leahy was deeply influential in the closing quarter. He kept getting on the ball in the middle of the field and he kept trying to make things happen.
Not to come over all Dunphyesque on it, but this was moral courage in a big way. The lads from Clare FM were singing Leahy’s praises afterwards and they were right to. Yet what an indication of where Kilkenny are right now that they needed a 21-year-old to put his shoulder to the wheel.
This was a far different affair to the one in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and, as such, a far better test. Clare asked their opponents the kind of questions Cork hadn’t. In most cases Kilkenny didn’t have an answer.
Five of their eight starters in the middle third of the field were replaced. That’s nothing short of a systems failure. Credit to Cody and his selectors, they didn’t stand gawking. Even if they had to do something. Anything. (One small criticism: this was a day for Lester Ryan.)
Still, Kilkenny showed heart and commitment and spirit when they eventually realised they were in a contest, and not merely participating in a contest but losing it badly. To repeat, it wasn’t a moral victory. But for the moment it’ll do.