A statistical look at why it would be completely foolish to write Kilkenny off just yet

“They look in real trouble. I know it’s early days but certainly they look like a team that just doesn’t have the quality to match their top-level opponents at the moment.

“But Kilkenny have serious problems and even at this early stage it’s hard to see how they’re going to mount a challenge in 2017, based on their performances to date.”- Liam Sheedy on RTÉ.

The obituaries have been wrote over the past couple of days to mark the end of the Kilkenny era of dominance following the Cats’ record defeat to Clare in Ennis on Sunday. There was a certain watershed feel to the defeat that would lead one to believe that this really could be the end of Kilkenny dominating the All-Ireland series on a near constant basis, but it would be foolish to draw such conclusions just yet.

While there were plenty of worrying aspects from Kilkenny’s performance against a side who had been completely outplayed by Cork eight days earlier, you really have to bear in mind that this is just the second round of league games. Cork’s subsequent capitulation to a Dublin side that was so thoroughly hammered in their own opening round fixture just emphasises the unpredictable nature of results in the top division, and with each team trying new things, that is not surprising.

You only have to look at the Kilkenny team on Sunday to see that managers of each county are still shuffling their decks to find the aces in their packs, and there will be occasions in which they pull out a couple of jokers rather than a royal flush. Padraig Walsh was deployed at full-back, and despite playing quite well there, he is much more influential on this Kilkenny team playing in his customary number five jersey. The other nailed-on wing-back of recent years, Cillian Buckley, was placed in midfield, and while he is a perfectly adequate option in that area of the field, Cody could do with his defensive capabilities to the left of whoever he picks at centre-back.

Kilkenny could even have been within four points of Clare if TJ Reid had netted a 59th minute penalty, but he had to be content with knocking over the resultant ’65, and that was that for last year’s All-Ireland finalists as Clare tagged on 1-4 without reply to increase the margin of victory. There probably wouldn’t be so many musings from pundits and fans about Kilkenny being finished if the final score was a little less one-sided, which it could well have been.

Cody was also without Ger Aylward, Colin Fennelly and Michael Fennelly, though the latter may not play again this year, while Walter Walsh was forced off in the first half through injury. All-Ireland titles are not won or lost in February, but the groundwork for successful campaigns is often laid and Kilkenny have been kings of doing just that in recent years.

Having trawled through the statistics of the last eight league and championship campaigns, beginning in 2009 when the leagues were revamped to include an eight-team division as the top tier, it’s evident that the top teams have regularly failed to shoot the lights out in the early stages of the year since 2014.

From 2009 until 2013 only two teams who had lost two of their first three games in the league made it to the last four of the All-Ireland. The first was Kilkenny in 2010 and they would go on to lose the All-Ireland final to Tipperary that year, while the Premier County were obviously hit with the ensuing hangover as they lost their opening two league games of the 2011 season, only to go on a run to make the All-Ireland final again that year.

Back then it seemed as if early league form was a factor in how well a county would compete in the championship, but that is not so much the case anymore.

The 2013 season has been long described as an ‘outlier’ due to the make-up of the All-Ireland semi-finalists, but it was also the first year in which league form meant nothing when it came to the white heat of championship action. Clare and Cork suffered an abysmal league campaign, with the former winning just two games and the latter notching a solitary victory. The two counties met in a playoff to see who would drop out of Division 1, with Clare eventually winning an epic encounter after extra-time -a pre cursor to what was to come later that year in Croke Park.

In 2014 the results were not quite as stark, though Tipperary lost three games in a row during the spring competition only to go on and make another All-Ireland final, yet again being beaten by Kilkenny.

The following year was perhaps the biggest piece of evidence to back up the argument of why league form means relatively little when you make it into the summer months. Kilkenny went on an abysmal run midway through the league, losing to Dublin, Galway and Tipperary before eventually beating Clare in a relegation playoff. Galway hardly set the league alight either, losing to Dublin, Cork and Tipperary that spring while just about avoiding a relegation playoff on points difference. The Tribesmen would eventually face off against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final once again that September.

Michael Ryan’s tenure in charge of Tipperary was being questioned in its infancy after the only victories that were achieved in the 2016 league came over poor Cork and Dublin sides, but hindsight shows that the new manager was just perfecting his gameplan once they comprehensively beat Kilkenny in the one game that really mattered last year.

Kilkenny are the only since Tipperary in 2001 to win both the All-Ireland and the league in the same year, so anointing Tipperary as All-Ireland champions is a little premature just yet. They’ve certainly been the most impressive team over the first two rounds of hurling, while Kilkenny have probably been the worst, but there is an awful lot of hurling to be played between now and September.

This Kilkenny side may not be as good as previous ones, but how often have we said that over the last number of years before ultimately looking foolish come September?