Cillian Buckley - the Kilkenny captain of last season will be sidelined for a good while yet
So what do you reckon Kilkenny hurling boss Brian Cody’s biggest task this season is?
Biting the bullet re Padraig Walsh and returning him to the half-back line? Finding and grooming a new full-back, should said bullet be bitten? Coping with the absence of Cillian Buckley in the short to medium term? Making a decision as to who plays on the left side of midfield and, in the event it’s Richie Leahy, pushing James Maher up to left-half forward?
No. None of these. Cody’s biggest task this season is to source a couple of scoring forwards. Kilkenny will not win an All-Ireland until he does so.
You’ll probably remember some of the lowlights from last summer. The 1-2 from play against Galway in Salthill, with the goal coming in the bowels of injury time. The systems failure against Wexford, when the starting six forwards failed to muster a score from play between them.
The men in stripes averaged 51 per cent of possession per game in Championship 2018. Working the sliotar into the scoring zone was not the issue. It was what came next that was.
They bowed out when fetching up two points short against Limerick, 0-27 to 1-22. The MacCarthy Cup winners in waiting hit 0-25 from play, which is humongous, that afternoon. Their opponents hit 1-16, which isn’t bad at all.
But now for the kicker. Kilkenny had 37 attempts at points to Limerick’s 35. Limerick’s success rate was 71%; Kilkenny’s success rate was…43%.
Forget Limerick’s slight superiority on the day. Forget Eoin Murphy, whose brilliance saved the losers from a heavy beating. Kilkenny blew this one. The figures leave no room for argument. Driving 15 wides and dropping six efforts short equates to blowing it on a grand scale.
At this stage let me introduce you to Brian McDonnell, proud Nenagh and Tipperary man and the author of a magisterial statistical work on the 2018 championship.
Brian statted every game in exhaustive detail, a labour of love that deserves a McNamee Award if not indeed a Nobel Prize. As we’d be here all day if we went through everything, let’s content ourselves by comparing Kilkenny’s scoring return from play in their seven outings to that of their opponents.
Against Dublin: 1-10 from play to the Dubs’ 3-9. (Kilkenny’s point shot success: 63 per cent.)
Against Offaly: 2-14 to 1-9. (Point shot success: 37 per cent.)
Against Galway in Salthill: 1-2 to 0-14. (Point shot success: 18 per cent.)
Against Wexford: 0-11 to 1-12. (Point shot success: 37 per cent.)
Against Galway in Croke Park: 0-9 to 0-13. (Point shot success: 41 per cent.)
Against Galway at Semple Stadium: 3-8 to 1-22. (Point shot success: 35 per cent.)
The figures for the All-Ireland quarter-final you’ve seen.
When I tweeted about this at the time, someone tried to claim that it wasn’t important and that it didn’t matter “where the scores came from as long as they came”.
Talk about heroically missing the, ahem, point.
If the scores aren’t coming from the starting forwards, from where are they going to issue? The full-back line? Eoin Murphy’s long-range frees? Eddie Keher? The ghost of Jim Langton?
Defenders can be coached. Forwards have to be found. Accepted, their powers of decision making can be worked on – look at how Eddie Brennan improved over the years in that regard – but they must possess some instinct for putting the orb between the posts in the first place.
This season Kilkenny have to move beyond relying on Walter Walsh and Colin Fennelly, fine ball winners but not scoring forwards, to work the umpires. In an ideal world scores from Walsh and Fennelly would be bonus items, as they were with Martin Comerford. That is the nirvana to which the county must aspire and evolve.
The good news is that the back end of 2018 threw up a wave of scoring forwards at under-21 level, and not just in Roinn A either.
We won’t be seeing them line out for Kilkenny just yet. But as the League progresses, we may see one or two of them.
PS By rights the fee for this article should of course be going to Brian McDonnell, whose diligence made it possible.
Unfortunately it won’t be. What can I say? I’m cheap...
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