Yet again, Brian Cody on the verge of another stunning feat with the Kilkenny hurlers

The Cats under Brian Cody have defied the odds time and time again. Can they summon one more monumental All-Ireland final effort?

Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

HOW MANY TIMES have we said it before about Kilkenny? ‘If they pull this one off, it’s the best ever.’

Time and time and time again, Brian Cody has brought Kilkenny to the Promised Land when the odds looked stacked against them.

On the face of it, the conveyor belt of talent that was once churning them out on an almost annual basis appears to have dried up.

But Cody is the master of maximising the talent at his disposal and making the very best of what he has.

On Saturday, he gambled again and came up trumps. Mark Bergin, Liam Blanchfield and Eoin Larkin all drafted into the starting line-up at the eleventh hour.

Their inclusions had been well-flagged on social media on Friday evening and while Bergin’s impact was minimal, Blanchfield scored three points from play while Larkin scored a point and put in a big shift.

It’s not the first time that Cody has pulled a rabbit from the hat, of course, and learning lessons from drawn matches.

Remember Walter Walsh in the 2012 All-Ireland final replay against Galway? In from the cold and man-of-the-match.

Two years ago, Cody watched the impact of Tipperary’s Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher in the drawn final and reacted by bringing in Kieran Joyce. He, too, claimed the man-of-the-match award.

In fact, Cody hasn’t emptied his bench in a championship game since the 2014 Leinster SHC semi-final victory over Galway.

Last year, he could have used a maximum of 20 subs in four championship games.

But Cody plumped for just ten – and four of those were in Kilkenny’s opening victory over Wexford.

He brought on three in the Leinster final win against Galway, just one (John Power in the 67th minute) when Kilkenny beat Waterford in the All-Ireland semi-final and two in the Galway final (Richie and John Power in the final ten minutes).

This summer, Cody used three subs in the Dublin victory (two in the last ten minutes), two more in the Leinster final and two again in the drawn Waterford game.

He brought on four players last Saturday in the replay, two of those injury-enforced as Lester Ryan came on for Michael Fennelly while Kevin Kelly replaced Liam Blanchfield in stoppage time.

Cody is either happy to go with this template and keep the changes to a minimum or he doesn’t trust what he has on the bench. The loss of Ger Aylward to injury this season was a big setback and James Maher, who looked really impressive early in the year, followed suit.

Joe Lyng, another promising young player, is a cruciate victim, like Aylward, and the absence of that trio has weakened Cody’s hand.

Whatever he’s doing continues to work but there is a distinct feeling that Kilkenny are clinging on in games.

The aura of invincibility that they once carried has diminished to such an extent that a Waterford team beaten by 21 points in a Munster final took them to a replay, with just two points separating the teams at full-time.

This writer sat in the Upper Cusack Stand to watch Kilkenny decimate Waterford in the 2008 All-Ireland final. That was the high water mark of the Cody era in terms of a complete performance and while they haven’t reached those levels since, they’re still on the verge of another three-in-a-row.

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Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Until somebody knocks the Cats off their perch, they remain the standard-bearers and the team that everybody else has to catch, even with a perceived lack of depth.

If Michael Fennelly, as expected, is ruled out of the final through injury, we can perhaps expect Kieran Joyce to return to the starting line-up, with Conor Fogarty reverting to midfield.

But Cody does have the option, too, of introducing Lester Ryan at midfield and leaving the defence as it was last Saturday.

The bench is where Kilkenny’s problems lie but up to now, Cody hasn’t really needed a bench. He’ll pick 15 starters for 4 September and trust them to get the job done.

Recently, they’ve teetered on the brink of elimination but Kilkenny’s survival instincts remain intact and Tipp will have to reach the peak of their powers to land a knock-out punch.

Even in 2010, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Henry Shefflin limped off early with a recurrence of cruciate knee ligament damage, John Tennyson played with a similar problem and Brian Hogan was ruled out through injury.

Henry Shefflin is helped off the pitch in 2010. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

And yet Tipp still had to produce arguably their finest display of modern times to see off a team that simply refuses to yield until the final whistle confirms that they’re on the wrong end of the result, which rarely happens.

Make no mistake, Kilkenny will be ready for whatever Tipp throw at them.

And given the fact that so many marquee players have exited stage left over the last few years, the sight of black and amber ribbons adorning the Liam MacCarthy Cup would confirm Cody’s greatest-ever achievement as manager – again.

Against familiar foe, few would back against him.

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