When Kilkenny won a third successive All-Ireland hurling title in 2008 with an emphatic final win over Waterford, Brian Cody made the ultimate statement about the value of a starting place.
hey were at the peak of their considerable powers that year and the game was done and dusted by half-time.
An opportunity to ‘run in’ substitutes had been presented early by the direction the game had taken but Cody wasn’t about to engage in such tokenism.
A rare show of sentiment was made for James McGarry who, after an exemplary career, was playing his last inter-county game and late on he replaced goalkeeper PJ Ryan. The only other substitution was TJ Reid for Martin Comerford, the future Hurler of the Year posting four points in his short time on the field.
It was clear what the message was from such a minimalist approach: jerseys have to be earned and once earned should be hard to relinquish.
It wasn’t a policy that Cody could always pursue. When a team needed fixing, he was never afraid to get his hands dirty by doing what had to be done. But a team playing so well was one best left untouched.
It’s something Henry Shefflin has taken west with him, if the recent Leinster round-robin campaign is anything to gauge by.
After their win over Kilkenny at the beginning of May, Galway – like the rest of the Leinster counties – had a two-week break before their next game against Laois. With a 34-man squad, it was an opportunity for some road-testing.
Galway weren’t assured of a play-off place by that stage, having left a point behind in Wexford, but still there was room for manoeuvre against a team that had lost their previous two games by 26 and 27 points respectively.
Shefflin paid Laois the ultimate compliment though by playing his strongest team. Conor Whelan, back from the injury he picked up against Wexford, replaced Johnny Coen but that was it.
Galway won the game comfortably and a week later Shefflin sent out the same 15 against Dublin as top spot was secured.
It hasn’t taken him long to identity the personnel he wants. After using more players than any other Division 1 team in the league, 35 in their five regulation games, Shefflin has taken it to the other extreme in the championship so far, 25 used of which just 17 have started. By any standard, that’s a thin spread. For a first-time manager going to another county where real knowledge can take a while to acquire, it’s a remarkably low turnover from week-to-week.
Had Whelan not been injured against Wexford, it’s quite likely the number of starters would have been 16.
For the Westmeath game that followed Wexford, the temptation may have been to react to a poor conclusion seven days earlier but instead he kept faith. David Burke deputised for Whelan and has since kept his place. In successive games, Evan Niland and his replacement Coen have given way.
But the same goalkeeper, the same six defenders and two midfielders are among those to have started all five games.
By any consensus, the challenge facing Shefflin at the outset in Galway was to bring some order to the vast swathes of playing personnel that have been deposited off the county’s underage conveyor belt in recent years.
The charge laid at Micheál Donoghue and subsequently Shane O’Neill was that change wasn’t coming fast enough.
Shefflin has taken a balanced approach to that. There’s a clear nod to the future with the inclusion of more U-20 players than any other county. Gavin Lee, Greg Thomas and Tiernan Killeen have all featured at some stage of the season.
But experienced hands remain and only Niall Burke and the injured Adrian Tuohey didn’t make the cut when a championship squad was announced after the league.
Such certainty of selection has given players like Tommy Monaghan and Cianan Fahy opportunities to flourish. And it has given the team structure. Monaghan is enjoying an impressive second coming under Shefflin. Having won an All-Ireland medal in 2017, his career never kicked on and drifted during Shane O’Neill’s two-year term. But he is revitalised now – an ever-present fixture having started all five league games too.
Fahy has been something of a bolter but he too has been given time to grow into it and has returned 1-8 in the championship.
Were it not for injury between the league and championship, Ronan Glennon could also have laid down firmer foundations, having impressed for them in the league at midfield from where he scored 12 points.
But maybe it’s the regeneration of some of their older players that has, thus far, been his biggest success.
Conor Cooney for one is revitalised and after the departure of Joe Canning to retirement has stepped up to the mark as the team’s marksman-in-chief with 1-42.
His winning point against Kilkenny in the circumstances showed a steel in Cooney that supporters wouldn’t always have identified with him. Only this week Kevin Lally, one of Shefflin’s selectors and a coach at Cooney’s club St Thomas’, was hailing his “leadership and composure”.
Joseph Cooney has also thrived between midfield and half-forward under the present regime and has amassed 2-15. Making Dáithí Burke captain is reaping rewards too, providing him with a renewed focus.
Shefflin and his coach Richie O’Neill have made a sizeable commitment to take on Galway, given the travel involved from their south Kilkenny bases.
They are facilitated by the use of a room for work and, when it arises, team matters in the Lough Rea Hotel but the toll of travel and time had cast some doubt as to whether they’ll see out the three years.
Shefflin has also had to deal with the sudden death of his younger brother Paul in March. But he has endeared himself to people in Galway on a number of fronts. His flexible approach to Fitzgibbon Cup players was welcomed.
As Ballyhale manager for two years, there was considerable grief to deal with there too so he understood what TJ Brennan – boyfriend of Kate Moran who died as a result of an accident in a camogie game in April – was going through when he put him into the action in the closing moments against Kilkenny. His one-to-one dealings with players have also been valued.
Inevitably, going up against Kilkenny again will draw much attention, particularly any engagement with Cody.
But his line of vision so far has been straight and clear, his selection policy a testament to that.
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