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Leinster final replay preview: Cody’s Empire to strike back

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Galway v Kilkenny, Sunday, 8th July, Semple Stadium, Thurles, 3pm

So many questions. That’s what we were left with after last week’s game. We thought it would have provided us with some answers. We thought it would have provided us with further evidence that Galway were the heirs to Kilkenny’s throne as the best team in the country, and will go on to dominate the game for the next few years. But it didn’t turn out like that. What we thought was fact has actually proven to be a mere illusion. We don’t really know anything now. We just have more questions.

There are a lot of questions relating to this game and the first one focuses on the venue. Why the hell are a Leinster team, playing against a Connacht one, in the Leinster final, at a Munster venue? It’s a funny one, no? Now I’ve no problem with this game being played in Semple Stadium. None at all. It makes logistical sense for both sides in that’s an easier journey for both of them than Croke Park. So that’s fine. Perfect.

Here’s the thing though: we know that Leinster championship games can be held in Munster. It’s been done before. The provincial semi-finals in 2002 were in Semple Stadium. But, if that’s the case, why the hell can Munster Championship games not be played in Leinster? Why were Waterford fans and players being dragged all the way over to Limerick to play their game against Tipperary this year, when there was a perfectly acceptable ground, that was nearer to them (and one that Tipperary have a notoriously bad record in) in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny? Why is there one rule for one and not for the other? It’s ok for the Munster council to take money off the Leinster one, but not the other way round? That certainly seems to be the case anyway. It just beggars belief.

So if we need to have a conversation about the fixing of games in venues, we also need to have one about the actual use of said venues for musical events. This is the second time a concert has caused disruption to a Galway Kilkenny game in the championship. The game in Salthill earlier on in the summer was seriously hampered by the shambolic state of the pitch caused by Ed Sheeran and his followers.
It’s the same with Croke Park. What the hell is Michael Buble doing there at this time of year anyway? Whatever about the musical merits of Buble (and those are questionable enough) there needs to be a prioritization of GAA grounds being used for GAA activities. The organization seemed to have a massive issue with the thought of “foreign games” (well apart from American football) being played at their stadium. But the idea of 4 concerts in the summer causing any amount of damage to the pitch doesn’t seem to cost a moment’s thought. Peculiar one isn’t it?
But maybe now’s time to focus on the actual game wouldn’t you say? Well, if you have enough energy for it. Now last week, this was a game that neither side wanted to lose. I mean, no one wants to lose a provincial final and go the longer route to All-Ireland glory. It would be a bit of an inconvenience for sure. But because of the replay, and the fact there’s a quarter final for the loser the week after, this is a game that either side MUSTN’T lose. Because whoever loses this game faces the wholly unappealing prospect of facing up to a Limerick side, who’ve had a longer rest, plus a much easier most recent game, within the space of a week..
So whose situation would you prefer to be in? Whoever loses this game on Sunday will have had two physically draining games in the space of a week and will be on a low, going into an All-Ireland Quarter-final a week later. Whereas Limerick, are fresh from three weeks rest, and have got an easy run out against Carlow. And that may very well be curtains for their season.

If last week’s game thought us anything, it was maybe that Galway aren’t as good as they think they are, and Kilkenny definitely aren’t as good as they were. The Kilkenny side of 2008 would have beaten Galway by at least ten, if not 15 points last Sunday. But, unfortunately for them, this isn’t the 2008 Kilkenny side. Of the starting six forwards from last weekend, only one, maybe two at a generous push, would have featured a decade ago. Of the other four, Billy Ryan had a promising debut, although his conversion rate was much lower than it should have been.

But there was a lesson to be learned for Cody in all of this: he has to get his starting selection right. Certainly Richie Hogan did more than enough coming on to be in line for a starting spot. Likewise John Donnelly. And for some reason  Liam Blanchfield seems to have been cursed with that cruel “impact sub” status. Then you have Colin Fennelly who still has pace and a physicality that would trouble any defence. Cody is not inclined to do dummy teams, the majority of the time, but in this instance there seems to be a clear definition of who the Kilkenny form players are. He would be wise to give them the opportunity from the start.

 

If nothing else, he can take comfort from the fact his defence and midfield seems to be sorted. Padraig Walsh gave a JJ Delaney-esque performance at full back and, while Cillian Buckley may have been slightly fortunate to walk away with the man of the match award, he’s still one of the most athletic defenders around and an excellent distributor of possession. It’s telling how much his colleagues continuously pass him the ball. In fact, there seems to be a very defined leadership hierarchy along the spine of the Kilkenny side: Murphy, Walsh, Buckley, TJ and Wally. And if any of those pivotal players under-perform, the Cats are likely to be in trouble.

 

For Galway the equation seems a bit simpler: just play better. The amount of rudimentary errors and poor first touches made by the likes of Padraig Mannion, Johnny Coen, David Burke and whoever else last week was shocking. Meanwhile Joe Canning had one of those days when his hurl seemed to be skewed leftwards. So there certainly seems to be more in the Galway tank. If they can play at their peak, or at least, 80 to 90% of it, they should win. If they bring the intensity of their earlier season form and last, they should win. But has the dreaded blight of complacency struck them at the wrong time? And can they re-attune themselves mentally in the space of a week?
In a sense, it’s hard to see either side blowing the other out of the water. Kilkenny will see it as a benefit that this game is being played in Semple Stadium. Their record against Galway there (victories in 1997, 2004 and 2006) and though those games weren’t today or yesterday, history always means something. There’s also the fact that, despite the squad’s obvious limitations, they’re on an upward curve, while Galway are going through a momentarily, or even, just solitary blip. But Cody is continually learning from each of these games against the Tribesmen and for that reason I expect it to be close. It’s hard to beat Kilkenny in any game at the best of times. But in a close one, it’s next to near impossible. We know what Kilkenny are like. If nothing else, they’ll be defiant to the last. With Galway…you just don’t know do you? You just don’t know.
PREDICTION: Kilkenny by 1