It had to happen. Maybe we didn’t expect it to happen now but at some stage it was inevitable. There was going to come a day when this Kilkenny team ran into a younger, faster, more talented side and they were swept off their feet. Sunday was that day.
Brian Cody has performed miracles as Kilkenny manager. To win seven All-Irelands in the 2000s was an outstanding achievement, but to win four thus far in the current decade, with a seemingly inferior crop of players, was an even greater one.
But the deficiencies that are in the Kilkenny team, exposed by Clare in the league semi-final, were again on display on Sunday. Kilkenny fans have often wondered what would happen on the day Richie Hogan and TJ Reid were not at their fluent best. Well, now we have our answer.
Even in such a comprehensive defeat as this there were still reasons to be thankful from a Kilkenny point of view.The scoreboard at the end showed a nine-point deficit but Tipperary would not have been flattered by a 15-point victory such was their level of superiority on the day.
The only reasons this did not happen was the brilliance of Eoin Murphy in goal, Tipp’s own profligacy on the day, and the indomitable “spirit that will never be broken” of the Kilkenny team. Kilkenny almost never lose close games under Cody, but the occasional trimming is not unknown. Even in abject defeat however, they die with their boots on, to coin a phrase Pat Spillane used after Kerry’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin last month.
If there was some other solace to be taken for the manager from a deeply disappointing day, it was the performances of both Liam Blanchfield and Kevin Kelly, who were two of Kilkenny’s best performers in their first All-Ireland final. It showed that there is some hope for the future. But that doesn’t change the fact that the same 15, playing the same way, will not win an All-Ireland next year.
Cody played in one of Kilkenny’s greatest sides ever, the Cats team that won three All-Irelands from 1972-1975. This, however, was 1976 against Wexford revisited: the day the relentless machine finally hit the wall.
There’s no suggestion, nor should there be, of Cody stepping down at this stage. But as to which players will continue with him in the next phase of the process, the question remains open.
Five Players Who Could Go
1. Jackie Tyrrell
Made of granite and with an assured hurling touch to go with it, the Village man is arguably Kilkenny’s greatest left corner-back. Inspirational speeches aside however, his influence on Kilkenny’s last two All-Ireland finals has been minimal.
Aged 34, and with nothing left to prove in the game, one wonders if he has the appetite or capacity to come back on to the team next year.
2. Eoin Larkin
A former Hurler of the Year yet often underrated member of the forward-line, Larkin would probably admit 2016 was not one of his better years.
He had a six-month stint on foreign duty in the army earlier on in the year and perhaps his hurling touch never fully recovered. Now 32, it’s a big ask for him to go to the well again.
3. Michael Fennelly
Probably Kilkenny’s greatest midfielder since fellow Ballyhale man Frank Cummins, yet the litany of injuries stack up. As Brian Clough famously once said to Eddie Gray: “If you were a racehorse, you’d be by glue by now.”
Fennelly was often the glue that held Kilkenny together and his absence was keenly felt on Sunday. The Cats need a peak Michael Fennelly in 2017. Will they get it?
4. Kieran Joyce
Joyce started the first semi-final against Waterford and was dropped for the replay, started the All-Ireland final, but was substituted before the end. Not exactly a ringing endorsement from the manager. Joyce has been excellent for Kilkenny in previous games against Tipperary, but on Sunday he was targeted.
His lack of pace has become a cliché at this stage, but at 29 he’s unlikely to get much quicker. When Dunnamaggin centre-back Eamonn Kennedy was exposed by Kevin Broderick in 2001, Cody was ruthless in wielding the axe. Could the same happen this time?
5. Shane Prendergast
It’s an easy shot to pick on anyone from the Kilkenny full-back line after what happened on Sunday. Even the perpetually heroic Paul Murphy endured a horrendous day. But as the oldest, and yet most inexperienced member of that line, the position of Kilkenny’s captain seems most under threat.
He only made his championship debut at 29 last year and has never fully convinced he would be a long-term solution. With youngsters breathing down his neck, next year is a big one for him.
Five Players Who Could Enter The Fray
1. Robert Lennon
Lennon impressed in the league earlier this year against Tipperary. He also started a couple of championship games this season and didn’t look out of place. Lennon could consider himself unlucky not to have made the team for the final, but his best days are surely ahead of him. Now, with potential places up for grabs in the full and half-back line he will be chomping at the bit for next year.
2. Richie Reid
Brother of TJ and from an exceptionally talented hurling family, the youngest Reid certainly has pedigree. He was listed as a goalkeeping substitute for Sunday’s game but has starred for Ballyhale in an outfield position.
Deemed one of the best club hurlers in the county, he could be a big addition next year.
3. James Maher
Maher was one of Kilkenny’s star performers in the earlier stages of the league, particularly in a Man of the Match display against Tipp, but then got injured at a most inopportune time.
Big and strong and a good scorer, there is definitely space for someone of his ilk in the forward line.
4. John Walsh
One of the stars of Kilkenny’s Intermediate All-Ireland Championship-winning team scoring two goals in the final.
He also bagged two goals in the All-Ireland minor final victory a few years ago and he lacks nothing in skill and scoring potential. He is a cert to make the panel next year and he has the talent to progress further.
5. Ger Aylward
Not so much a new entry as a re-entry. The Glenmore man was superb last year in winning an All Star at corner forward. He’s now recovered from injury and was back training with the panel before Sunday.
However, lack of match fitness prevented him from being introduced. Cody’s reluctance to introduce substitutes from the bench on Sunday was a tacit admission of the paucity of options. If Aylward was fully fit he would likely have been introduced. Or rather, if he’d been fully fit, he would likely have been playing.
Mark Townsend, Pundit Arena