WHEN 37-year-old substitute Billy Byrne scored 1-2 in a late burst which tipped the 1997 Leinster final in Wexford’s direction, nobody could possibly have envisaged the dramatic transformation which was about to descend on hurling in the province.
It was the fourth successive year in which Kilkenny, then managed by subsequent GAA president Nickey Brennan, had failed to win the provincial title and while it was always accepted that their absence from the top table would never last too long, there was no reason to suspect that they were on the verge of establishing the greatest power base hurling has ever seen.
Fifteen years on, Kilkenny head into Saturday’s championship opener against Dublin on the back of a truly remarkable record, which has seen them lose just one of 28 games inLeinster.
That defeat came in the 2004 Leinster semi-final when a last-minute goal by Rory Jacob enabled Wexford to beat Kilkenny by two points.
Otherwise, Kilkenny’s dominance of Leinster has been total, exerting unprecedented control over Wexford, Offaly, Dublin, Laois and Westmeath. Galway’s arrival in Leinster in 2009 was supposed to be a major threat to Kilkenny’s dominance, but, so far at least, it hasn’t materialised.
Of course, Kilkenny’s supremacy hasn’t been confined to Leinster, as they have also won eight All-Ireland titles but it was all built off the dominance they established locally.
It tends to be forgotten that Kilkenny were Leinster champions when Brian Cody took over for the 1999 season. Still, his arrival changed the entire dynamic in the county, even if he had to wait until 2000 to preside over his first All-Ireland success.
Kilkenny won three games to win the 1998 Leinster championship but failure to complete the season with an All-Ireland win was followed by Liam Fennelly’s departure.
Leinster’s progression towards a one-county hurling state was already under way and their dominance would quickly extend nationwide.
A glance at the results from the Leinster hurling championship in the 1998-2011 era underlines the extent to which Kilkenny squeezed the life out of their neighbours.
Up to 1998, Kilkenny’s championship wins over Wexford ran at a ratio of 2:1; since then, it’s 8:1.
It wasn’t until 1980 that Offaly asserted themselves in their relationship with Kilkenny, but over the next 18 years they matched the black-and-amber all the way.
All that changed after Offaly’s victory in the 1998 All-Ireland final and, 14 years on, they have lost all eight championship games with Kilkenny.
Dublin, who now quietly fancy themselves to finally break Kilkenny’s grip have lost seven times to the Cats since 1998, six in Leinster and one in the 2004 All-Ireland qualifiers.
Interestingly, too, Kilkenny’s winning margin in Leinster since Cody’s arrival has averaged over 12 points per game in yet another demonstration of the ruthless efficiency they have brought to their reign.
– Martin Breheny