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9 September 2004 Edition

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Greatest Cats ever set for three in a row

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All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final
Kilkenny v Cork
Croke Park, Sunday 12 September.

By Matt Treacy

One of the greatest sources of debate among hurling followers in recent years was the selection of the Hurling Team of the Millennium. There were many points of controversy - not least the fact that, as one unkind person put it, the main qualification appeared to have been that you had to be dead to be eligible.

Of the fifteen, I had only seen Brian Whelehan, Eddie Keher and Ray Cummins playing, and of the latter two I would have only hazy memories. I know others who remember Jimmy and John Doyle, Ring, Rackard, and Mackey. To have seen Lory Meagher in his heyday you would need to be in your 80s.

None of that is to question the right of any of those selected to be on the team, but for most hurling followers one omission called into question the validity of the whole exercise. That was the failure to pick D J Carey. Now the man from Glen Rovers who once told me that I could know nothing about hurling because I was from Dublin may have been right, but I reckon that I know enough to know that D J is the best player that I have seen, or am likely to see, in my lifetime and I would imagine that there are many who think likewise.

I would also imagine that for myself and many others one of the main interests in Sunday's final will be to once again have the pleasure of watching the master perform and, for myself at least, helping Kilkenny to win their third All Ireland in a row. It will be a fitting pinnacle to a great career and for the greatest team of the last 30 years.

Of course Kilkenny are not a one-person team and have won some of their greatest victories when D J has been relatively quiet. Sometimes D J is like the character in The Simpsons who stands quietly to one side while the Yakuza and Fat Tony's mob fight it out. When Marge drags Homer inside, Homer says: "But that little guy hasn't done anything yet, and when he does I know it's going to be good". And it invariably is. D J's flashes of brilliance have turned games around and finished games as contests.

His critics claim that he hasn't performed in finals. Sometimes when D J has had an ordinary day, as he did when Kilkenny and Cork met in the 1999 final, Kilkenny overall have looked flat and have been beaten. That doesn't happen as often these days and Kilkenny are not as dependent as perhaps they at one time appeared to be on the man from Gowran.

It has been that flexibility on the part of Kilkenny that has allowed them to vary their tactics and allowed others to assume greater responsibility. In the forwards that has seen Henry Shefflin take over most of the free taking duties, not to mention his devastating ability to score goals from play. To date this year, Shefflin has scored 6 - 40. The Cats also have Eddie Brennan who has scored 5 - 10. For Cork, their most effective forwards have been Ben O'Connor with 2 - 30 and Joe Deane with 1 - 32.

Brian Cody and his selectors have rightly been given a huge amount of the credit for building this Kilkenny team. While the core has remained the same; with ten of those likely to start on Sunday having played in the 2002 and 2003 finals, they have also demonstrated a brilliant and some might say ruthless ability to introduce new blood at the expense of former stars. Tommy Walsh is undoubtedly their best find, while Charlie Carter has been the chief victim of what some regarded as a mini-purge.

On the other hand, those who doubt Kilkenny's ability to put the elusive three titles together, point to a dulling of their edge. For these critics, the Cats claws are no longer as sharp as they once were and they no longer have that killer instinct to finish off teams that might be their downfall against a hugely talented and hungry Cork team.

As evidence of this, they can point to Kilkenny's defeat against Wexford, the drawn game against Clare, and the failure to finish off Waterford until near the very end. There might be some merit in that, but in the Clare and Waterford matches we have also seen evidence of the iron behind the velvet. They may not be winning as comfortably as some might expect of a team chasing three in a row, but they are not losing close hard-fought games and that will stand to them against a Cork team that might not yet have that kind of resolve.

To spite the man from the Glen, I am going to use a Dublin anecdote to illustrate what I mean. Last January Dublin defeated Kilkenny in the Walsh Cup final. Not a big thing - expect for Dublin - but one thing stands out in my memory from that day. As Kevin Flynn received the trophy, Cody walked around some of his players who were sitting on the pitch and made them look up to the stand. Of course I couldn't hear what he was saying but perhaps it was something on the lines of: "Do you want to be looking at that again in June or July?" And of course they didn't, and of course did not have to.

So the question is, will Kilkenny do it? If they do it will be something that has eluded any Kilkenny team since 1913 and the failure to do so by the legendary team of the 70s is sometimes cited as proof of their not being a great team. Well, this Kilkenny team is a great team, perhaps the greatest ever to wear the black and amber and as someone who has watched them humble the sky blue on all too many occasions, I hope that they do. If the man from the Glen is reading this he will also wonder how in the name of God anyone could write about an All Ireland final and only mention one team. And of course he would be right. But sure what would I know about it?


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