Kilkenny's resolve strengthened by siege mentality
By John Harrington
By now, you would have thought a siege mentality would be the last psychological ploy the Kilkenny hurlers would be capable of engaging.
After all, they’ve won eight All-Ireland titles and eight Leinster titles in the last ten years and been commonly lauded as the greatest team in the history of the game. But they would never have achieved that sustained success had they not taken such pride in their ability and achievement, and it is clear that pride has been pricked in the last couple of years.
When Ger Loughnane described them in an interview with GAA.ie earlier this year as being “functional in the extreme”, and suggested there was “no way” they should be going for three All-Irelands in a row in 2016, he rose the Cat's hackles. Loughnane’s comments might have been more cutting than those previously expressed by anyone else, but his sentiment is hardly a rare one.
Even within Kilkenny the softly spoken suggestion that the current team does not have the same depth of quality as the four-in-a-row side of 2006-2009 has a common currency. The current players themselves are keenly aware of this. Paul Murphy has certainly no qualms about admitting he views it as an insult and uses it to stoke his inner fire.
“I just suppose after the few years that we're there that it's natural that when the likes of Tommy and JJ and all of these lads left, of course you're going to question such a change in the camp what's going to happen,” says the Kilkenny corner-back.
“Is it going to affect the camp massively? Again, it's just a natural thing for people to look at us and say, 'do they have what's in reserve'? As a player you have to take it on yourself and say it's an insult to yourself. People don't mean it as an insult, but you have to take it that way.
“If you think you're good enough to play for Kilkenny and win All-Irelands, then you have to take these things as, well, 'I'm going prove to people that I am good enough'. So, yeah, people are going to question it, but there's a great satisfaction as well in answering those questions when the pressure is on the most.”
The wiser among us have surely learned by now never to rush to judgement even when the temptation is to suggest that Kilkenny’s standards might be slipping. They’ve had dips in the past that ultimately proved to be ramps for another rise in fortunes.
Nevertheless, when they were well-beaten by Clare in the Allianz League Final this year, it was reasonable enough to argue that this result proved Kilkenny could no longer cope quite so well if a number of their key players were ruled out with injury because the panel does not have the depth it once did.
“I suppose, yeah, you're aware obviously of the way people are thinking,” said Murphy. “It's very hard to avoid it. It's social media and even if you're not reading the papers it's going to pop up somewhere, unknown to yourself. So you are aware obviously but it's natural I suppose for people to kind of question after such a heavy defeat, what way are they?
“Mentally are they after taking a bad hit there? Are they capable to have a panel good enough to beat Dublin or to push on? So that's natural but you just have to take these things on the chin. That's what sport is about.
“People are there to analyse how teams are going and it'd actually be ridiculous if someone looked at us and said, 'Ah Kilkenny are perfectly fine'. Obviously after a big defeat like that it's natural for people [to question us/> but we knew what way where we were, we knew we had lads to come back and Championship is a lot different from League so we just got the heads focused in. We didn't really care what everyone else was doing, just focused on our own game really.”
Those who thought or hoped that Kilkenny’s defeat to Clare exposed a real fragility were surely given pause for thought by the manner in which the Cats subsequently dispatched Dublin in the Leinster semi-final. They obliterated the Dubs with a typical ‘shock and awe’ assault in the second-half as they turned a one-point half-time advantage into a 12-point winning margin. It was a classic Kilkenny performance. They dominated their opponents physically in all areas of the field, and created and finished scoring opportunities clinically.
“We showed, even when Dublin came back at us, we still showed that we're able to pull away that bit and in the second half we got the scores we needed to get and we kept pushing on, which is the main thing,” says Murphy. “We didn't take our foot off the gas and we kept going.
“We just knew that if upped it and upped it we would have enough in the tank but that's not to say that Dublin weren't going to explode out. But we knew we had to get a good start in the second half and thankfully we were the ones who got the few scores after half-time and when that gap opened up we had a small bit of a breeze.
“They pulled a man out as well. Our backs worked well and our forwards took the scores we needed so things just went well. The machine was going fairly well that night and we just pulled away nicely.”
Brian Cody also gave lie to the suggestion that his panel’s strength in depth is no longer what it once was by pulling rabbit named Jonjo Farrell from the hat. Farrell has been knocking around the scene for a couple of years as a back-up player who got a few runs in the League. Yet on his Championship debut he proved his calibre by scoring 1-5 from play.
“He's been there a few years now and I think when you're there a few years you kind of realise that when you are getting a chance, especially in Championship, because the chances don't come around too often, that you kind of have to take it,” says Murphy.
“You could just see from the start the other night that Jonjo was just electric. A few balls didn't go his way in the first 10 minutes but he stuck at it and then the game just opened up and he was flying. He looked to be enjoying it as well which is a great thing. So it was great to see the likes of Jonjo coming through because he's been trying for so long and to get his chance. To take his chance was brilliant and he had a massive game.”
Farrell isn’t in the mould of classically skilful Kilkenny forwards like Richie Hogan and TJ Reid, but he does very much fit the profile when it comes to physicality and knowing where the target is. Murphy has marked him in training on countless occasions, and knows from cold, hard experience that Kilkenny’s latest attacking weapon is a bludgeoning one.
“Even since minor now and under-21 I've been marking Jonjo and he's different,” says Murphy. “He's a real tough nut. When lads look at him, he's not the stylish corner-forward. He's well able to do the same things corner-forwards can do but he does them a small bit different. He's brilliant at catching the ball.
“I suppose he's a hard man to hook and everything. He's a bit of a nightmare for a corner-back but it's great to get to mark him and stuff in training because it prepares you for any real angle of a player that you're going to meet.”
Kilkenny’s success has been largely thanks to the fact that they prepare for every contest better than their opponents do. They have all the strength and skill in the world, but it is their ability to consistently find a mental edge that makes them all the more formidable.
By rights Galway should be the more fired up team for Sunday’s Leinster Final because they have last year’s defeat in the All-Ireland Final to avenge. But when you prick the pride of this Kilkenny team you know you’re going to suffer a backlash, and the memory of their 10-point defeat to Galway in the 2012 Leinster Final still whips the Cats on.
“Yeah, of course,” says Murphy. “It was one of the biggest defeats, probably the biggest defeat I've had, playing for Kilkenny. It was quite obvious from early on in that match that they were completely up for it and that we weren't at the level they were at that day. I don't think we even got close to them that day.
“After 10 minutes they kept upping the gears and upping the gears. Yeah, we do use it as an example because, you know, it's bad enough losing a match, but if you don't use it in future, sure what's the point in having it really. Of course we do because, I suppose, Galway getting relegated, can come in under the radar.
“Everyone is talking about Waterford, Clare, and Tipperary and all of this. But, you know, Galway were the team that got to the All-Ireland last year and were going well. And Galway every year upset someone and have really big performances. It's just a matter of being ready for the Leinster Final because, like I said, 2012 they just blew us off the pitch and we don't want that happening again this year.”
Galway, of course, have had a change of management since last year’s All-Ireland Final after a heave from the players forced out Anthony Cunnigham who has since been replaced by Liam Donoghue. Since Brian Cody took charge of Kilkenny in 1999, every single one of their major competitors has gone through at least one such bitter fracture between players and management. Little danger of that ever happening in Cat Land on Cody’s watch.
“It wouldn't be wise for it to anyway,” laughs Murphy. “There would be a lot of careers cut short, I'd say now! No, like, it's something that I'd never like to comment on, another team's camp. Because it's just the respect that's there. You don't want to say what's going on, because you don't know.
“Unless you hear it from the horse's mouth you don't know what's going on inside that camp. It's unfortunate when it does happen, but from other county's points of view it's wiser just to let them go off and do their own thing. You have to give it some respect. Because obviously they just want to win and the management want to win. But when they're not seeing eye to eye, something has to come to a head and it's unfortunate when it does happen.”
It’s indisputable that Kilkenny’s lack of infighting or disruptive regime changing has been one of the biggest factors in their success in the last 17 years. Brian Cody’s early All-Ireland wins gave him a mandate that is now set in stone, and consistency and excellence off the field has fostered the same qualities on it.
“This is it. If a thing is working well, then every county board and every county team just wants that consistency," says Murphy. "They just want to go out on the pitch and hurl and have no distractions off the pitch. Yeah, like you said, you just want to go in, have everything in place, no problems in the camp, and everything to work like clockwork. Sometimes that doesn't always work, but thankfully we're lucky enough in Kilkenny to have that working. We do have that situation.
“Like I said, we don't fuss ourselves with what's happening in other camps. For good or bad, they're just trying to sort out what's happening in their camps to try and win matches and win All-Irelands. And we're doing the exactly same thing. Thankfully for us at the moment it's nice and fluid at the moment.”