John Conran. Picture: Sportsfile
IT’S a minor detail laced with major significance. John Conran, the last manager to mastermind the toppling of Kilkenny within their own provincial fiefdom, was a Leinster selector this year for the inter-provincial hurling series.
Training was organised for 6.45 one evening in Abbeyleix. For many of the players coming from different corners of the province, it was a battle against the clock that they couldn’t quite win.
They got there, maybe a few minutes late, to be greeted by 13 Kilkenny hurlers. They had all arrived, in different cars, a full 25 minutes before the appointed time.
Most of this group are weighed down with All-Ireland medals. They could have been excused for ‘excusing’ themselves from a competition most famous nowadays for inspiring public apathy … but not alone were Kilkenny there, in numbers, but they were there early.
For Conran, that spoke volumes. “It typified the attitude of them,” the Wexford man enthused. “I think they are a huge team, probably the best hurling team that ever came around, and yet they’re able to maintain that attitude.”
Their status as the ‘best ever’ was already enshrined in history even before Kilkenny decided, about a year ago, that they still can’t get enough. They were supposedly in decline after last year’s league final capitulation to Dublin, coming in the wake of their All-Ireland ‘drive for five’ car crash against Tipperary the previous September.
So much for slippery slope; they’ve skated away from the pack once more. Another All-Ireland — the eighth of Brian Cody’s never-to-be-repeated reign. Another National League title — their sixth under Cody’s inscrutable gaze.
Their domination over Leinster is even more pronounced. Cody has accumulated 12 provincial crowns in 13 attempts.
His one failure came in 2004, when Conran’s cunning game-plan and his players’ thrilling execution of same delivered a spectacular ambush that no one had seen coming.
Damien Fitzhenry’s arrowed puckouts to forwards in perpetual motion left Kilkenny’s defence in a spin. And yet, for all Wexford’s brilliance that day, they would have lost but for a dramatic stoppage time goal from Michael Jacob.
Tomorrow in Portlaoise (5.0), Anthony Daly’s Sky Blue bravehearts will attempt to go where no Leinster team has gone since Wexford eight years ago. The grapevine has it that Dublin are focused on this one match like never before, imbued with a self-belief that this could be their time to finally slay Kilkenny in summer combat.
And yet, you sense, sometimes the worst time to face Kilkenny is when everyone is talking up your chances. The champions have injury issues ahead of Saturday’s Leinster semi-final, just as they did before that recent league final. Then, Cork had the precocity of youth and prolific form on their side — not much use when your streetwise opponents have 2-6 on the board inside 11 whirlwind minutes.
John Conran reckons it is “within the bounds of possibility” that Daly could assume his mantle as the last manager to scalp the Cats in Leinster … but he sees it as a mammoth task primarily because Kilkenny, since 2004, have “upped the bar” to a significant degree.
“They have become very professional,” he surmises. “Their whole attitude to the game is totally right. However Brian Cody got that, I don’t know — but he has that. There are no egos. They play together totally as a team. There is huge competition for places, which is great, but no animosity between subs and starting players.
“It’s going to be very difficult for Dublin, even though it’s as good a chance as they will ever get. The one thing that might catch Kilkenny is complacency, but it doesn’t catch them very often.”
Potential weak links are thin on the ground. Conran suggests isolating their full-back line but admits: “It’s very difficult to do that.”
He concludes: “Their first touch is so good, they make so few mistakes, they don’t drop the ball — they are keepers of the ball when they get it. They are like that Spanish team against Ireland the other night, because they are so good on the ball … Cody doesn’t play to a particular plan as such, because he knows his players are so good at getting the 50-50, and very good at keeping it.”
– Frank Roche – Evening Herald