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top cat Brian Cody turns 67 this week yet, in spite of his age and success, the hunger for glory clearly persists

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The ever-hungry Brian Cody has guided Kilkenny to another Leinster final

The ever-hungry Brian Cody has guided Kilkenny to another Leinster final

The ever-hungry Brian Cody has guided Kilkenny to another Leinster final

A SECOND hurling sin-binning, one with ominous implications for the entire All-Ireland field, sailed in unseen behind the enveloping, corrosive fog of that Limerick call.

Banished to the Croke Park stands was the thesis, peddled with ideological certainty by a wildly misguided rump, that reimagines Brian Cody as some diminished figure who, for the greater Kilkenny good, must run onto his own sword.

It was a madcap argument from the beginning, one so divorced from good sense as to hardly merit a response.

But the old game’s apple-cheeked patrician delivered an eloquent putdown to his naysayers anyway, one conveyed as emphatically as a sweetly-flighted arrow from TJ Reid’s bow.

From beneath the baseball cap he bears like a second skin, Cody unveiled another Saturday sideline masterclass.

His fierce aura loomed over a Leinster semi-final of compelling intensity and profound beauty, a game for the ages that re-announced Kilkenny’s top-table credentials.

Rather than a time-expired legend, Cody summoned a performance drenched in ancient Cats certainties.

Of course, Kilkenny, like the rest of the hurling world, will require a hugely favourable wind to mount any serious challenge to Limerick, a battalion without evident kink, one capable of delivering stop-all-the-clocks cameos.

If Cian Lynch, Kyle Hayes and Gearoid Hegarty are the undoubted standard setters, the evidence of a weekend that saw Galway misfire is that Kilkenny have eased towards the summit of any best-of-the-rest shortlist.

And set flame to any notion that their manager is a beaten docket.

There is a growing sense that Cody’s finest accomplishment might be the body of work he has delivered in the post-galactico era, his competitive genius apparent in the triumph of maintaining the Cats’ relevance without the diamond-encrusted brilliance with which Shefflin, Walsh, JJ, Jackie, Brennan, Larkin and Fennelly lit up so many summers.

It seemed that way again as Wexford, heroic but broken by an exhaustion that was an inevitable by-product of the ultra-marathon mileage they had run, were swept away in extra-time of a riveting, epic, emotionally-draining shoot-out.

Here was that trademark Kilkenny combination of ferocious will, quickfire delivery and lethal marksmanship.

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The latter was provided by the peerless, timeless Reid, almost 34, yet still gambolling around Croke Park even as so many keeled over with cramp that a suspicion grew there might be sniper operating from the Upper Hogan.

It was also provided by Eoin Cody, a forward of blue-chip touch and the finest hurling instincts, a 20-year-old who has clearly inherited the DNA of his uncle, the great Henry Shefflin himself.

And also, by a rush of carnivorous substitutes led by the towering veteran, Wally Walsh.

For the casual observer, the names on the Kilkenny team-sheet no longer trip off the tongue. Compared to their eminent predecessors, they are largely a blue-collar force.

What Cody has harvested from fields infinitely less fertile than in those years when Celtic crosses bloomed like late summer roses in Ballyhale and The Village, Tullaroan and Johnstown represents a miracle of over-achievement.

An All-Ireland final in 2019 on an afternoon scarred by Richie Hogan’s sending-off was followed in 2020’s winter championship by an unlikely Leinster title secured at the expense of a Galway side who seemed to hold all the aces.

But when Cody is sitting cold-eyed across the casino table, no hand is a guaranteed winning hand.

It is true that Kilkenny faded badly in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, an ebbing that prompted authentic misgivings within the county.

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Brian Cody and former Kilkenny star Henry Shefflin

Brian Cody and former Kilkenny star Henry Shefflin

Brian Cody and former Kilkenny star Henry Shefflin

Richie Power and Taggy Fogarty, celebrated figures in Cody’s finest teams, broke ranks to suggest the time for change might be looming. There were reports of player unhappiness at levels of pre-game analysis.

But not only was the Waterford game an aberration (and Kilkenny, even after being hit by the Stephen Bennett whirlwind, lost by four not 40), it served to highlight all Cody had recently achieved with sharply diminished resources.

Kilkenny haven’t won an All-Ireland U21/20 title since 2008. Their last minor crown came seven years ago.

Yet even with a reduced supply line, Cody has kept the county at the heart of the summer conversation.

2020 was a 16th provincial tiara for the ancient game’s Alex Ferguson, one that glistens alongside the auld laird’s unrivalled crown jewel collection – nine league trinkets, and that priceless necklace of 11 All-Ireland gemstones.

To put those numbers in some context: Cody has won more All-Irelands than all bar two rival counties. Even that pair – Cork and Tipp – have to travel back as far as 1966 and 1961 respectively to arrive at their 11th most recent encounter with Liam McCarthy.

Cody’s entire haul was plundered in a whirlwind, era-defining 15-year dominion, a rapacious age of conquest that, one by one, crushed every rival.

The argument from his critics is that six years have passed since his last All-Ireland. Such impatience illustrates how the worldview of some has been skewed by Kilkenny’s age of imperium.

Cork have not lifted the Liam McCarthy Cup for 16 summers; Galway have triumphed once in 33 years, Wexford’s lone success in 53 years came in the last century; Waterford’s wait stretches back to 1959.

By comparison, hardly an eyeblink has passed since Kilkenny ruled the world.

If it is accepted they are a county in transition, still, over the past five seasons, none of their peers has appeared in more than the two All-Ireland finals they have contested. They haven't gone away, you know.

Cody turns 67 tomorrow yet, in spite of his age and for all the battle ribbons pinned to his lapel, still the hunger and fury for glory clearly persists.

On Saturday week, his team will be clear favourites to defeat a resurgent Dublin in the Leinster final and fast-track their route to the All-Ireland semi-final.

Cody was an animated force of nature patrolling the line last weekend. And his team performed in his likeness.

They were defiant and unbending against opponents rediscovering the best of themselves.

Saturday reminded us of an eternal truth about Cody’s line-ups: they empty the tank every single day; wear their integrity of effort as a badge of honour; every stripy uniform is stained with the sincerity of exertion.

They may not always be the best, but they will almost always be the best they can be.

This Kilkenny fundamental is a quality worth its weight in gold; it is one sometimes underestimated by those who obsess about the game’s systemic and tactical evolution, ignoring that hurling remains a visceral test of character.

Where even the best of the rest – Galway in the first of Saturday’s double header the latest example – have afternoons where they seem to sleepwalk, where they can appear complacent or dialled out, Cody almost always has his players at the appropriate pitch.

The second half paling against Waterford stood out because it was such a deviation from the norm.

If every manager came under pressure after a single subpar 35 minutes, the constant rapid shifting of personnel would see intercounty dugouts come to resemble a speed-dating convention.

Those critics who regard Cody as a relic of another tactical age might have been forced to re-evaluate after his shrewd second-quarter move to push up on Wexford’s puckouts.

The effect was to suffocate Davy Fitzgerald’s side, restricting their preferred option to go short and run from deep.

Kilkenny have an impressive supply line of generals in waiting: Shefflin and Eddie Brennan already have already compiled stellar portfolios; Michael Fennelly, DJ Carey and David Herity can present eye-catching CVs.

Shefflin’s aura and his outstanding work with Ballyhale would make him a compelling successor if he was minded to announce his candidacy.

But neither The King nor Brennan would do that before the current incumbent chooses to reveal his exit strategy.

Cody is so much the other half of summer that there is a danger the long days might list without his counterbalance.

Maybe he will depart soon, perhaps even by the end this campaign.

But Saturday, like last winter’s annexing of Leinster final day, or the charge to the 2019 All-Ireland final, felt like a statement.

One that announced that even after all the years, his is no token or sentimental presence.

And that those who wish to hasten Cody to the exit really ought to be careful what they wish for.

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