Cillian Buckley has enjoyed great season to date
For a minute or two there over the weekend it felt almost warm, although it’s possible I dreamed that.
Hiems may not quite have transiited yet but this wretched Spring, with its snow and its rain and its winds and its far too many funerals, looks to be reaching an overdue endgame.
The Spring did give birth to one interesting new creation, mind you. “And here, straight off our Kilfera catwalk… Brian Cody’s latest Kilkenny team!!!”
We said something last week to the effect that Cody and his selectors have looked reinvigorated. A quick scan through the match programmes reveals just how decisive they’ve been on the sideline. In their eight outings during the National League the new champions made 36 substitutions, of which more than half – 19 – came before the 50th minute. It’s as though Cody has been on a personal mission to defy the long-running charge of being “fierce slow to make a change”.
Just for pig iron I dragged out my notes of the Clare game on February 4. It was the county’s second league outing and their second defeat. With 23 minutes gone they trailed by 2-7 to 0-2. “E Morrissey for Lyng,” the notebook reads. “They had to do something.”
On 25 minutes: “Kilkenny double substitution. At least they aren’t standing looking at it.”
On 31 minutes: “Leahy run from deep, rousing stuff. Alan Murphy free. Crowd alive.”
At half-time, with the visitors leading by 2-12 to 1-7: “Is this as bad as it will get for Kilkenny?”
It was an existential query rather than a practical one. I was thinking in terms not of that particular match, not of that particular afternoon, but of the big picture and of the next couple of years. Might Kilkenny get worse later in the league, or later in the season, before they began to get better? Might things go on to be even worse next season?
We now know that they didn’t and they won’t. February 4 was as bad as it would get for Kilkenny.
They came back out after the interval and landed three points on the trot, the first of them from Martin Keoghan. Maybe that Keoghan point, a badly needed contribution from a badly needed fresh face, was the moment 2018 truly began for them.
Didn’t Lose Honour
Come the final whistle the scoreboard read 2-18 to 1-18. Though Kilkenny had lost a match, they’d done enough on the resumption to ensure they hadn’t lost their honour. They’d won the second half, indeed, which in the circumstances was the only thing they could win. Shades of the 2012 Leinster final, they managed to extract something from the rubble. Man gets tired, spirit it don’t.
Six wins on the bounce and a national trophy have followed. If the Cats are not yet legitimate All Ireland contenders they’re definitely realistic All Ireland semi-final prospects, and that’s a claim that couldn’t have been made two months ago.
Of enormous benefit has been the management’s certainty from the beginning about the optimum spine of the team. Padraig Walsh at full-back: not the ideal position for him but, given his intelligence, mobility and strength in the air, he constituted the least worst alternative. Cillian Buckley at centre-back. Richie Leahy one of the midfield partners. T.J. Reid at centre-forward and nowhere else. Walter Walsh the next strike forward, whether on the edge of the square or on the wing.
Leadership Beyond Years
Leahy has been everything his fans hoped he’d be, showing leadership beyond his years, and the selectors have been careful to avoid running him into the ground. Keoghan has been a delightful surprise, even if it’s not difficult to envisage him at midfield or possibly wing-back in the coming years. James Maher is gradually returning to the form he demonstrated during the 2016 National League, when he looked a star of the future.
On the negative side, not enough scores are being sourced from the corner-forward positions. But next month’s trip to Salthill to face the All-Ireland champions Galway no longer holds the fears it might have, with Wexford’s visit to Nowlan Park now assuming the proportions of a shootout to decide which of the pair reaches the Leinster senior hurling final.
A wretched Spring. And, then again, not such a wretched Spring.