Kilkenny"s 2-21 to 2-9 win over Offaly in the Leinster under-21 decider on Thursday evening of last week was a disappointment that was felt all across the county - but opinion remains divided as to whether Anthony Stapleton"s final whistle was merely a slight setback along the road to full recovery or else the bubble bursting on Offaly"s supposed revival.
Only time will tell if the seniors" win in the Gaelic Grounds or the failure of the under-21s in Tullamore is the better benchmark of where hurling in the Faithful County stands at the moment. But if a silver lining to last Thursday"s clash is to be found, it"s in the fact that no longer is there a risk that those charged with the development of hurling in Offaly will sit back and cruise into 2009, made complacent by the signs of revival that were seen in the games against Limerick and Waterford. Indeed, so dominant were Kilkenny on Thursday that it could be argued that Offaly must continue to make significant progress in order to simply maintain the current gap in standards between the two Leinster counties.
Brian Cody has revolutionised the game of hurling to the point that his system, his style, completely trumps any game-plan that has so far been devised to counteract it. His players toe the line immaculately, motivated by their conviction that although every manager in the country at club and county level preaches 'my way or the highway', only Cody has acted on this belief and thus is likely to do so again. He can do this because he is working with a ready made set of replacements at all times. Were Martin Comerford to move away from his quiet, dedicated lifestyle, TJ Reid proved on Thursday that he could step in with the greatest of ease. If Noel Hickey was to go travelling and swap the tilled fields of Dunamaggin for the paddy fields of South East Asia, Kieran Joyce could step in without missing a beat. This theme is replicated all over the field.
Michael Walsh has taken an average Kilkenny minor team and turned them into an all powerful clone of the Kilkenny outfit; just as skilled, just as powerful and most significantly, equally dominant under the high ball.
Yet again, it was that dominance under both puckouts that was the main difference between the two sides in O"Connor Park last week. Once the ball hit the turf Offaly competed reasonably well, though a couple of big names failed to secure as much possession as the team needed them to.
However, all too often the sliothar never got close to the ground as Kilkenny hands rose highest and secured possession time and again. At the start of the second half Kilkenny"s half-back line made nearly a dozen clean catches off Offaly puckouts before Offaly finally got their hands on one. With the rules being interpreted as they are in the modern game, a team of All-Stars couldn"t cope with that paucity of possession, much less a talented but inexperienced group of young Offaly hurlers.
When an Offaly team containing several of the county"s brightest prospects falls so badly to a Kilkenny side that is considered little better than average by Noreside standards, there is a temptation to overdo the doom and gloom. However, there were some encouraging aspects to the performance. Stephen Wynne marked Richie Hogan extremely well throughout the match and he"ll certainly be one player that Joe Dooley will be keeping a keen eye on in the coming weeks, while Derek Molloy did compete well under the puckout. Colm Coughlan was the pick of the forwards and took a couple of nice points from play, while Colin Egan also played a lot better than his early substitution would suggest. Indeed, it was notable that while Egan played at centre-forward he didn"t catch any clean ball himself but neither did Paddy Hogan - while Hogan really cut loose once Egan was moved to full-forward.
Offaly hurling is perhaps not in the robust healthy state that some believed after the senior performances against Limerick and Waterford, but neither is certain that it"s as far adrift as last week"s result would suggest.
All that can be said with certainty is that continued improvement is necessary, because Kilkenny appear to be going further and further clear of the pack with every game that they play.