Let’s get one thing clear. We are not writing off Kilkenny, we are not jumping on a bandwagon after the league semi-final against Clare.
We wrote a piece a number of weeks ago about the importance of coaching and management in any sport.
The Kilkenny hurlers were the main template looked at in that article where we lauded the coaching and management from Brian Cody and his backroom team in orchestrating the game plan to get the best out of his resources. Kilkenny have deservedly won the last two All-Ireland titles but their tactical set-up and game plan went unnoticed by a lot of people.
The protection of their defence is a massive part of their plan in an attempt to keep clean sheets. And while their work rate and high intensity is obvious to anybody who watches hurling, they have been the two key elements to the Cats two most recent All-Ireland successes.
Players putting opponents under constant pressure along with exquisite hooking, blocking and flicking are the foundation of that Kilkenny side. They add to this the undoubted class of TJ Reid and Richie Hogan along with a panel of hungry players and they have managed to outwit anybody who has stood in their way in the last two years.
Are we writing off Kilkenny? No. Are they still favourites for the 2016 All-Ireland title? Yes. Have they been the best team in Ireland for the last two seasons, and the last 20 years? Absolutely. Will they have a massive say in the destination of the Liam McCarthy Cup this year? Yes.
However, the game against Clare showed the limitations that are in this Kilkenny side. Without the players playing to the plan directed by management, this team can struggle and this has been seen at different stages in certain games, and particularly in the game against Clare.
So here we identify five areas where the Cats need to improve.
1. Protect the defence
This is one of the main parts of Kilkenny’s game plan and the one that fails to be spotted by so many.
Kilkenny are experts at not conceding goals. They are by no means a negative team, but they have a very rigid system in place at the back and when their defence is not protected, they are vulnerable, as seen against Clare and Cork in the league.
Clare scored four goals yesterday and it could have been more. Joey Holden was totally isolated against John Conlan. There was an acre of space between Kilkenny’s half-back line and full-back line.
Yesterday showed the importance of Michael Fennelly and Conor Fogarty, who are key elements of the defensive set-up. They sweep in behind the half-back line on so many occasions to protect Holden and this also frees up Padraic Walsh and Cillian Buckley to the half-back line where everything is solidified.
It may seem like a very obvious point, but it is a fact. Kilkenny win when they work harder than the opposition. If they don’t work harder, then they struggle. They lost two games in this year’s league, to Waterford and Clare, and on both occasions their opponents worked harder.
The Kilkenny work-rate was always a massive part of their success but in the last two seasons, it has moved up another level. The two games that stand out more than others are the 2014 All-Ireland Final Replay and the second half of last year’s All-Ireland final.
Kilkenny brought intensity and work rate to a new level on those occasions.
Clare outworked Kilkenny and matched their intensity, it was only a league semi-final in April, but the result showed what can be done.
3. Turn the middle third into a dogfight
This part of their plan requires massive intensity and two members of personnel that were missing against Clare. Those two players are Colin Fennelly and Eoin Larkin.
They did crowd the middle of the pitch in Thurles but they did not bring their work rate and intensity to turn it into the dogfight that they love to do. It into their hands with their phenomenal strength and conditioning. But it also frees up space for TJ Reid et al in the forwards.
Walter Walsh could be seen picking up a lot of ball as far as the Clare half-back line as can Fennelly and Larkin when they play. But Kilkenny need to do this, to slow down the opposition and to protect their defence as alterted to earlier.
4. TJ Reid and Richie Hogan
One thing that has been highlighted this season is Kilkenny’s reliance on TJ Reid. One couldn’t go as far to say that he is carrying Kilkenny at the moment, but he is vital nonetheless.
Reid right now is what Henry Shefflin was up until 2012. The difference is that Shefflin had far better players around him then Reid does now. If anything, that might make Reid even more important. But it is true to say that Kilkenny fans should be worried if Reid’s form was to dip.
The form of Richie Hogan should be another concern. He does not look right. He had been carrying and injury in the early part of the season, and has not looked the same player in the league. He has massive scope for improvement come the summer.
Hogan and Reid are the leading two hurlers in Ireland at the moment. Their undoubted class, coupled with Kilkenny’s game plan is why they have won the last two All-Ireland titles. They will need the same, if not more, to capture three-in-a-row.
Kilkenny were short five players yesterday and it pushed them right to their limits. Granted, all teams will struggle without five key players, but limitations and cracks appeared as the intensity stepped up and those on the field for Kilkenny did not have the answers.
Paul Murphy is one the leading defenders in Ireland at the moment and would be a loss for any side. The midfield partnership of Fennelly and Fogarty are essential to Kilkenny’s defence, as are the hard working forward like Colin Fennelly and Larkin.
The other five players should return for the summer, and yesterday showed that Kilkenny need them back badly. They cannot afford any injuries if they are to secure another All-Ireland.
If these players don’t return, Brian Cody could find himself putting square pegs in round holes.
We are not silly enough to attempt to write off Kilkenny. Nobody could be. Nor is this writer jumping on a bandwagon following a defeat or reading Ger Loughnane’s interview a few weeks ago.
Let there be no doubt about it, Kilkenny could easily win the All-Ireland and capture three-in-a-row. It would be deserved but it would be a poor reflection on the other counties. This is not a special Kilkenny side. They are exceptionally well drilled and driven by an outstanding manager and coaching staff.
They have deserved all their success, but Clare did expose their weaknesses and it will be interesting to see if other counties can now take a psychological boost ahead of summer.