KILKENNY’S SENIOR HURLERS have been here before.

A stuttering League campaign sees them staring at the possibility of another relegation playoff, and the prospect of Division 1B hurling next year.

As it was in 2015, when three successive defeats to Dublin, Galway and Tipperary plunged Brian Cody’s men into a shootout with Clare, which they won.

Six months later, Kilkenny put a below-par League campaign behind them to be crowned All-Ireland champions. This time, however, it would be difficult to envisage a repeat performance.

The sands of time have caught up with Kilkenny, and the turnover rate in the team over the last two and a half years has been rapid.

When they won the All-Ireland title in 2014, seeing off Tipperary in a replay, Cody had a stellar cast at his disposal.

The names tripped off the tongue and he had Joey Holden, Henry Shefflin and Lester Ryan to bring off the bench. There was still a considerable amount of strength in depth at the manager’s disposal but now, we’re not so sure.

Michael Fennelly’s inter-county future is still shrouded in doubt as he recovers from a serious Achilles tendon rupture, sustained against Waterford in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final replay, while JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Eoin Larkin, Richie Power and Shefflin have since retired from the inter-county game.

A piece we published in the aftermath of the damaging 2016 All-Ireland final defeat against Tipperary suggested that a major rebuilding job lay in store for Cody. 

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It prompted much debate and comment but Kilkenny’s start to the 2017 League campaign, which has seen them fall to Waterford and latterly Clare, suggests that the rebuild may be even bigger than first thought.

It certainly appears that the baton of power has shifted to Tipperary, whose 2010 All-Ireland U21 winners are blooming in their peak senior years.

The worry for Kilkenny is that they haven’t won an U21 title since 2008 but the continued exploits of St Kieran’s, crowned Leinster champions again at the weekend and aiming for a fourth successive Croke Cup win, provides a source of hope.

St Kieran’s celebrate Croke Cup glory last year.

Kilkenny were All-Ireland minor hurling champions as recently as 2014 but not with a vintage crop, while losing to Westmeath in the Leinster U21 championship last year just should not happen.

Most recently, a 13-point loss to Clare represented the biggest defeat during Cody’s tenure in League and championship, prompting the normally mild-mannered Eoin Larkin to hit out on social media. 

Larkin’s speaking from an undoubted position of strength and it should be noted, too, that he’s a James Stephens clubmate of Cody’s. Larkin’s obviously seen enough to leave him concerned about the team’s long-term prospects – and the county’s fans share his worry.

Retired former Kilkenny star Eoin Larkin.

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Looking through the team that started against Clare, it seems to be a case of round pegs in square holes as Cody battles through the League.

Pádraig Walsh, one of the game’s finest wing-backs, is sited at full-back, while Paul Murphy, a stellar corner back, is holding down the centre-back position.

Cillian Buckley, more renowned as a left-half-back in recent years, and a brilliant one at that, is playing at midfield.

Kilkenny still have some top quality players at their disposal, and always will, but it’s nigh on impossible to lose the calibre of stars they have over the last few years and expect the same high standards to remain in place.

Cillian Buckley has been used in midfield by Kilkenny this year.

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

One of Cody’s finest achievements was bringing transitional teams to All-Ireland glory in 2014 and 2015 but they hit a wall against Tipp last September and were well beaten by nine points.

And yet Kilkenny still managed to score 2-20 in that defeat – a tally that would win most matches.

The concern for Cody is that, so far, the defensive sextet remains a puzzle that he looks no nearer to solving.

The full-back line that started against Tipperary last September was taken for 2-15 from play.

Cody’s obviously recognised the issue, and the three full-backs who started against Clare last time out were Evan Cody, Walsh and Conor O’Shea, and none of them played in the inside line last September. O’Shea was on the matchday 26 back then while Cody made his debut in that recent Clare game.

Kilkenny defender Conor O’Shea.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

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And yet Aron Shanagher terrorised Kilkenny, collecting 1-3 from play as Clare caused the visiting Noresiders all kinds of problems. The full-back line problem may have to get worse, before it gets better.

Sunday’s visit of Cork, however, offers Kilkenny the opportunity to get valuable League points on the board.

And by 3.30 in the afternoon, all might seem brighter in their world.

Of course, there’s the danger of paralysis by analysis with Kilkenny. Perhaps it’s just a cyclical thing. Teams come, teams go. Tipp seem to be in a good place right now but we could be talking about Waterford in a similar vein in five or six years’ time, when their 2016 All-Ireland U21 winners mature.

One thing’s for certain, Kilkenny will have a big say in the destination of the 2017 All-Ireland senior hurling crown. And history has taught us that if they don’t win it, the team that beats them usually do.

From 2006-2012, Kilkenny contested every All-Ireland final and the loss to Tipperary in 2010 was the only blot on their copybook.

Brian Cody savours Kilkenny’s 2014 All-Ireland final win with James Stephens clubmate Jackie Tyrrell.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

After losing the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final to Cork, we wondered if it was the end of an era but back they came to win two-in-a-row.

Now, we’re asking the same old questions again, just this time they’re noticeably louder.

Come the summer, Cody will have a team primed and ready for championship hurling. Whether they’ll be good enough is a moot point.

The spring signs are far from positive but, as the late American novelist and short story writer Francis Scott Fitzgerald once said: Summer is only the unfulfilled promise of spring.

As always, Kilkenny’s continuing evolution will make for fascinating viewing.

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