Adrian Mullen is one of the young players who broke into the Kilkenny team this season
After all this time?… Always. Borrowing a quote from Harry Potter’s last instalment, the Deathly Hallows, is an appropriate way to describe Kilkenny’s whirlwind 2019 hurling season.
Even after all the retirements, all the revolutionary tactics, all the firm belief that Kilkenny were a mere footnote to the season, the Cats could now finish the decade with another All-Ireland senior hurling title.
Manager Brian Cody, like always, has a chance to walk through the storm victorious.
In January through to March, however, there was little or no indication that the ribbons adorning the Liam MacCarthy Cup might be black and amber.
Kilkenny navigated the National League with typical eagerness. The intent was to be successful, yet pragmatic.
Finding a new No. 3 was on the agenda, as was bulking up the forward line. Huw Lawlor was one of the candidates for the full-back spot, a position which sparked debate up and down the county. Conor Delaney was another contender.
The forward line situation would be a bit more difficult to sort. In the League, Kilkenny were without the services of the Ballyhale Shamrocks contingent - team captain TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly, Joey Holden, Adrian Mullen et al.
Former Hurler of the Year, Richie Hogan struggled with a back problem so his participation was limited.
Brian Cody and his selectors drove on without complaint.
There were still fine players chomping on the bit to nail down starting places on the team, they insisted throughout.
John Donnelly, Ger Aylward and Billy Ryan were three of the number.
There were uplifting victories recorded against Cork and Tipperary, which pleased Kilkenny supporters no end.
However, the League run also provided some harsh lessons. Limerick scored a comprehensive victory over Kilkenny in Nowlan Park, a rare feat.
Limerick rattled Kilkenny that day. Their forwards ran the defence, sucking them out the field and creating space as they plundered goals.
Their rate of intensity far surpassed Kilkenny’s. In short, they out-Kilkennyed Kilkenny!
Hindsight is a great thing. That Sunday back in February would have given Brian Cody plenty to ponder when he was preparing his team to play Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final.
In the semi-final, it was Kilkenny who set the level of intensity. They swarmed around every Limerick player in possession.
They were the hungry ones. That hunger drove them all the way into the All-Ireland final.
It is essential to stress again that no one, absolutely no one, had visualised Kilkenny in the final. They were simply not up to the tempo of today’s game.
Brian Cody no longer had the personnel to compete with the Limericks of this world, it was suggested.
Possibly Kilkenny’s lowest point was the aftermath of the Leinster final against Wexford. There was a fear in the air that if Kilkenny could not overcome Wexford’s sweeper system, what hope would they have against more attacking teams like Cork, Limerick and Tipperary.
Kilkenny’s predicament begs use of another proverb that also very much applies to their mentality in 2019. It is: ‘It always seems impossible, until it is done.’
It would be fair to say that Kilkenny began their ascent against Cork. This would be their All-Ireland.
All the pundits tipped Cork. It was an impossible task, until gritty Kilkenny won. Then whoever came across their path, nothing seemed impossible anymore.
There were many common denominators evident in Kilkenny’s victories over Cork and Limerick. However, the most important was that they were the team that worked the hardest.
After all this time, hard graft and hunger still seems to find a way of overcoming the most elaborate of game plans.
There was nothing revolutionary about the way Kilkenny smothered every Limerick and Cork player in possession. They had been doing that, playing like that, since the mid Noughties.
If anything, Brian Cody was proving a point. He always finds a way of making his plan work.
Now the challenge is to take on Tipperary. It has been three years since the two counties faced each other in an All-Ireland final. Not an awful long time, but….
Kilkenny might feel they owe Tipperary one. The Premier County’s forward line was simply too powerful that day in 2016.
However, they made it so by driving a mountain of possession in from their half back line. It is something modern hurling teams have built their temples around.
If you have a strong half back line, you therefore can supply the forward line with enough ammunition to gun down anyone.
Brian Cody turned this theory on its head. When defeating Limerick, his team showed that if the forwards defend as hard as the backs, no possession will ever come out cleanly.
Tipperary have always prided themselves on being able to create space by dragging the opposition back line out the field. This is how they create more space to carve out scoring chances.
Interestingly, Kilkenny have been praised for their back line being airtight and being able to hold the line. Tipperary’s method of unsettling them would have be very innovative.
Tipp have the forwards to do so, a lethal cocktail of youth and experience, but to do it over 70 plus minutes will be a mighty challenge.
Kilkenny have a way of breaking down teams, so they can struggle to implement any kind of game plan.
Kilkenny are a different animal since the Leinster final. They know better. Brian Cody knows better.
He knows what he has in Adrian Mullen. He knows what he has in Huw Lawlor. He knows what he has in TJ Reid and every hurler that dons the black and amber jersey.
Sheer hunger, commitment and honesty explodes from all quarters. Kilkenny still have the will, incredible will.
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