And so, it comes to pass. One of the most eagerly awaited finals in history, with two sides with a combined All-Ireland drought greater than Mayo’s (and that’s saying something) facing off. The phrase “dream final” gets bandied about too much, but in terms of a game where both sets of fans are long overdue a title, you could hardly wish for a better fit. Whoever wins on Sunday, the neutral will.
Here’s a thought though: What if it’s a terrible game? What if the two sides are so crippled by fear at the prospect of losing, that they aren’t able to unleash their undoubted potential? What if the Waterford sweeper system strangles the life out of the Tribesmen and we’re left watching the prospect of guys driving the ball miles wide from 70 yards for the duration of it. Will everybody still be happy then? Or, as I suspect, will there be a host of disgruntled folk on twitter moaning “At least if it was Tipperary and Kilkenny, we would have had a decent game…”
So let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. The theory being espoused after the semi-finals was that the penultimate game of the season is the hardest one to lose. I’m not sure if I necessarily agree with that. I imagine whoever comes up short on Sunday will feel pretty damn awful for months on end and perhaps more. And the fact that this looks an eminently “winnable” All-Ireland for both sides, unlike their recent finals against Kilkenny, will probably only compound the misery for the losers still further.
It really is a difficult one to call though. Sure, ever since they powered past Tipperary in the league final Galway have been hotly tipped. Kilkenny’s decline only accelerated their rise up the rankings, and then when Cork beat the Premier in the first round of the Munster championship they were all on their own as top dogs. That seemed a perfectly legitimate view to hold as they eased their way through the Leinster championship, but there were signs in that semi-final epic a few weeks ago, that the pressure of favouritism was beginning to weigh heavily on them.
On saying that, they won the game. Rather an unconvincing victory than an admirable defeat any day of the week. If winning by hook or by crook is the best barometer of mental fortitude then they sure as hell showed it 4 weeks ago.
This is the strongest the Galway team has been in nigh on 30 years. They’ve got a highly consistent goalkeeper (something you couldn’t always say about them), an assured backline with a particular strength at full back in Daithi Burke and a towering centre half back in Gearoid McInerney. John Hanbury was as good as he’s ever been in the Tipperary game, and Aidan Harte will be more than able for a sweeper role if called upon on Sunday.
At centre field David Burke is a powerhouse and Johnny Coen is one of the most intelligent hurlers in the side. Up front, it’s no longer the Joe Show, but one where any one of 6 forwards can hurt you at a given time. Conor Whelan is arguably more of a forerunner as Hurler of the Year than Joe, if he has an influential game on Sunday. The Cooneys, Conor and Joe, are powerful men, not only in terms of physique but in terms of ability. Not only that, but they’ve got great options off the bench. Jason Flynn may force his way into the side at the expense of Cathal Mannion or Niall Burke, but even at that, Jonathan Glynn and Shane Moloney are terrific options to have.
On the other hand, while there was a certain dip in Galway’s form in the semi-final, it’s arguable that the last quarter three weeks ago was the best hurling Waterford produced all year. Certainly, they were badly off form in their Munster outing this year, and while victory over Kilkenny for the first time in 58 years was huge, it was a game they should have easily won before extra-time. Against Cork, they were on fire, but how much of that was due to the numerical advantage they had in the latter stages of the game?
Conor Gleeson’s absence definitely leaves a void in the man marking stakes for them. Tadhg De Burca will be ushered back into the line-up and Kieran Bennett will probably hold his place to take up a man marking role. But his inexperience may make him one of Galway’s targets.
What seems certain is that this is a final, not only between the 2 best teams, but the 2 best squads in the country. Let it never be said that Waterford don’t have sufficient firepower to win an All-Ireland. Imagine having Maurice Shanahan, Colin Dunford, Patrick Curran, Brian O’Halloran and Tommy Ryan on the bench to come into the game in the last 20 minutes to win it for you. Tom Devine has been missing for half the year with barely a word said about him. And people say Waterford don’t have enough forwards? My word, Brian Cody would kill for those kinds of options.
Their drought may have been twice as long as their opponents, but it’s tempting to say that given the age profile and miles on the clock, this is a game that is more necessary for Galway to win than Waterford. After being defeated in two semi-finals in the last couple of years, Waterford needed to reach the final this year. But after losing, nay throwing away finals in 2012 and 2015, Galway can ill afford to let one more slip.
What’s absolutely ridiculous though, is the way that the side are being hyped to do it. Considering that Waterford have won all the previous championship clashes between the sides and, I think more pertinently, considering how desperately poor Galway’s recent record has been in finals, you could imagine the betting for this game being around the 50/50 level, perhaps slightly in the Munster men’s favour. Not so. The Tribesmen are an astonishingly poor 1/2 on in the bookies, while the Deise are a mightily tempting 9/4. So, any hurling fan with a few euros to spare would be well advised to throw some money Waterford’s way.
While the outcome is anything but a foregone conclusion, there is a certain inevitability to the way Waterford will play. Keep it tight for the first 50 minutes and then bring on the cavalry off the bench in the last 20 minutes to give it that final push. That was fine against Cork though, when the Rebels were down a man in the final stages, but if Galway keep their men on the pitch, and perhaps even strengthen themselves down the final stretch, will Derek McGrath’s men be able to match it? And will Galway’s greater physical force and ball winning ability in the forward line, not pose more of a threat to the Waterford backs than what they’ve experienced to date?
Whatever about the pain of losing a semi-final though, the anguish of lying on the pitch watching someone else walk up the steps of the Hogan Stand to pick up Liam McCarthy must be unbearable. Only Brick Walsh and Kevin Moran have experienced that for Waterford. Only Adrian Tuohy hasn’t experienced that yet for Galway. Maybe that will give the Connacht men that extra spur of motivation. Whatever you can throw at them, you can’t say they are lacking experience of the big day. So, while it would not surprise me one iota if Waterford’s greater youth and fearlessness does it for them, I’m going to give Galway an ever so hesitant vote of confidence.
VERDICT: GALWAY BY 1