Kilkenny keep the faith in tried and tested as they step up hunt for silverware

Of the 15 players who started last Sunday’s win over Wexford, 14 featured in Brian Cody’s last game in charge of the Cats

Within seconds of the final whistle last Sunday, TJ Reid was encircled by a stampede of little people – the kids figuring out many years ago the best way to pin down the Kilkenny hurler is by sheer strength of numbers.

Reid’s powers might not be what they once were, but the 36-year-old Ballyhale magician remains Kilkenny’s star attraction for those seeking selfies or signatures on their hurls.

Truth is, not much has changed with Kilkenny in recent years – Derek Lyng’s Cats are very much moulded out of the team left behind by Brian Cody. Of the 15 players who started last Sunday’s Leinster senior hurling championship win over Wexford, 14 featured in the 2022 All-Ireland SHC final – a game which marked the end of Cody’s silverware-laden 24-year reign.

Tom Phelan was the only starting player at Nowlan Park who did not make an appearance in the All-Ireland decider at Croke Park two years ago, though he was a member of the panel in 2022 and featured in three championship matches that season.

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In total, 12 of the starting team from the 2022 All-Ireland final lined out from the off against Wexford last weekend.

Adrian Mullen, Padraig Walsh and Conor Browne were the three absentees. Mullen was among the Kilkenny subs last weekend but was not risked as he continues his recovery from a groin-thigh injury picked up during Kilkenny’s opening round win over Antrim in April. When fit, the Ballyhale clubman is a guaranteed starter.

Walsh has retired from intercounty hurling while Browne stepped away from the Kilkenny panel in advance of the 2023 season to go travelling.

Phelan, John Donnelly and David Blanchfield were the three players in the first 15 last Sunday who did not start the All-Ireland final two years ago. However, both Donnelly and Blanchfield did come off the bench during that defeat to Limerick.

So, while there might have been some noticeable changes to Kilkenny’s style of play under the new management, including more use of a short game on occasion, Lyng has not overhauled Cody’s blueprint in terms of personnel.

Because Kilkenny are in many ways still trying to chase down Limerick with the same core group of players Cody had within the dressingroom in 2022.

Lyng has introduced fresh faces to the panel over the last two years, and one of the subs used on Sunday was Kilkenny’s highly rated 2021 Leinster minor winning captain, Harry Shine.

Owen Wall was rewarded for his strong club showing with O’Loughlin Gaels by receiving a call-up to the Kilkenny squad this year, and the attacker was also introduced late on against Wexford last Sunday.

Timmy Clifford, who captained the Cats to a Leinster minor title in 2020, is also on the panel though he was not among the match day 26 last Sunday.

Still, Lyng clearly puts stock in experience. Among the subs introduced against Wexford were Walter Walsh and Conor Fogarty. Cillian Buckley was also on the bench but did not get called upon. All three players made their championship debuts back in 2012.

Remarkably, this is the first year since the inception of the round-robin system that Kilkenny have gone through the group stages unbeaten.

They lost to Galway in 2018, the Tribesmen again in 2019 – the competition reverted to straight knockout in 2020 and 2021 – but in 2022 the Cats fell to both Galway and Wexford, while last year they also suffered defeat at the hands of Wexford.

The Cats are closing in on a fifth consecutive Leinster title but this campaign was the first in which they managed to avoid defeat. So why then does there appear to be so many question marks hanging over them?

There have been periods of sloppy play by Kilkenny in matches, misjudged passes and some unusually bad shooting – including some uncharacteristic wides from placed balls by Reid.

Also, Kilkenny’s scoring return has dropped year on year. In 2022 they registered 14-117 over the course of their five group games. It was 10-133 in 2023 while this campaign ended with a tally of 8-131 posted.

The decline in goals is noticeable, 14 in 2024 and just eight this term – with five of those netted in one game against Antrim.

Kilkenny’s scoring difference in 2022 was +51, it was +43 last year while this season it was +35. So, while Kilkenny finished the group stages unbeaten, they weren’t convincing throughout the campaign and certainly they were fortunate to pick up a win over Dublin in Parnell Park – a game which came on the back of a draw with Carlow.

Ultimately though, Lyng has taken Kilkenny back to where he wanted to be at the outset of the season – another Leinster final appearance and just two wins away from a return to the All-Ireland decider.

“We know we need to keep improving,” said Lyng at Nowlan Park on Sunday. “At times, in spells in some of the games we’ve been really good and then there’s other times then where we’re not so good.

“It’s going to be a big test [against Dublin] but we’re delighted to be there first of all and we have two weeks now to get ready for it.”

It won’t exactly be a new experience for this group of Kilkenny players.

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times