Offaly v Wexford, O’Connor Park, Tullamore, Saturday 26th May, 7pm
It’s been a fantastic championship thus far. Wexford’s game last week against Dublin was a thriller, with Davy’s men just about coming on top after a titanic struggle. Offaly meanwhile, were seen as the whipping boys of this group, but have performed admirably in their first two games, and while they’re still a bit away from their rivals, the margins are getting smaller.
Then again, there’s a feeling in the first couple of games that they kind of got away with it a bit. Sure, Galway got 5 goals against them a few weeks ago, but considering the amount of chances they had, it could easily have been 8. And Offaly were well within striking range of Kilkenny coming into the last ten minutes on Sunday, but if Liam Blanchfield and co really had the radar working, then they could have been annihilated. So yes, it’s been a decent championship so far, performance wise for Kevin’s Martin men, but the side still needs to shore up at the back, if they’re going to give themselves a chance of turning respectability into wins.
If Offaly’s biggest weakness is their susceptibility at the back then it’s good for them, that the opponents they face this week, have a counterpoint fallibility up front. Now of course, with the likes of Conor McDonald, Lee Chin and Rory O’Connor, there’s plenty of point scoring potential in this Wexford team, but the concern is, it doesn’t translate well into goals. In fact, in the last 8 league and championship games that have been played under Davy Fitzgerald, only 6 goals have been scored. And even though that has been compensated for somewhat by the point scoring potential of Diarmuid O’Keeffe and others in the half back line, if the team wants to move onto the next level, they will need to do start raising more green flags.
So it’s probably best for Offaly that they’re not up against a massive goal hungry squad this Saturday night in Tullamore. Sure, ideally they would be targetting a win in this game. If you were putting a positive spin on it, you would say that the team was just feeling their way into the championship with the first two games, and were concentrating on getting a win in one of their last two, more winnable, fixtures. But that doesn’t take into account the respective bases these 2 teams were coming from coming into this.
At the start of the year, and still now, Offaly were focusing on retaining their status in the championship. Wexford meanwhile, will have begun this year, focused on winning an All-Ireland. Whether it’s a realistic prospect is another thing, but considering the rate of progress Davy and his troops have made over the last year and a half, they’ve earned the right to dream big. Last week’s win was massive, but even in victory, you got the sense Davy won’t be resting on his laurels. They won’t be complacent against Offaly. They will just see it as another step on their way up the ladder.
PREDICTION: Wexford by 8
Galway v Kilkenny, Pearse Stadium, Galway, Sunday May 27th, 4pm
Galway’s All-Ireland success last year was completely merited. They were the best team in the country in league and championship. No one can deny them that it was a richly deserved and long overdue triumph. There was only one caveat attached to all the trophies and plaudits. They didn’t beat Kilkenny.
Now, that’s not to say they wouldn’t have beaten Kilkenny. They almost certainly could have toppled them, would have toppled them. But they didn’t get the chance. And that has to be one little nagging itch that’s gnawed away at them for the last few months. They were the best team in the country. They won everything. Yeah, sure. But still, wouldn’t it be so much sweeter if they’d beaten Cody and co?
Make no doubt about it, for many years, more years than it should have been, Kilkenny have had Galway’s number. Ever since that fateful game in a rain sodden Croke Park in July 2012, Galway have faced up to their nemesis 7 times in the championship. They’ve drawn a couple of those games, they could have won another couple, but they’ve recorded no wins. And considering how strong they’ve been over the past number of years, that’s a truly damning statistic.
So it’s a big game on Sunday. Sure, Kilkenny are still probably going to squeeze through the group, so long as they don’t completely capitulate in their last game against Wexford, and Galway will still probably be able to do enough in their last two games to get into the top 3, but this is about something more than that. It’s about a balance of power. Galway need to prove they are the top dogs in the country and Kilkenny, or nobody else, can push them around anymore. And they’re well capable of doing that.
There seemed to be a bit of a sea change in the tactics of the Tribesmen two weeks ago in their first game against Offaly. Last year’s championship was won with points. It was a necessary way of combatting the sweeper system, that Joe Canning, David Burke and whoever else, would pop over scores from miles out the field, sometimes 25, sometimes 30 in a game. It was a wise move and it served them well.
For this year though, they will need goals. And that first game seemed to acknowledge that. Whether it’s sending it into a big man on the edge of the square like Johnny Glynn or Jason Flynn, or getting someone like Conor Whelan to run from deep, Galway got more goals in one game against Offaly, than they did in 5 last summer. And they may try and continue this trend for the rest of this one.
It’s lucky for them so, that their opponents this week are facing a little bit of an existential crisis in their defence. Now Kilkenny have won 8 games on the bounce: no mean feat it must be said, but they’ve managed to do it with a wing back (Pauraic Walsh) masquerading as a full back. Another of that full back line (Joey Holden) has been dropped for Sunday and replaced by another wing back (Enda Morrissey). It’s an unsettling situation, and having seen the damage that the battering ram figure of Liam Rushe did to that defence just a few weeks ago, Michael O’Donoghue would be deeply foolhardy not to follow the same template.
Even when they’re underperforming and conceding goals (as they have been for the last 2 games) there’s an innate spirit about Brian Cody’s side that means they will never be easily beaten. So this is not going to be a runaway victory next Sunday. But there is an argument, that if Galway have the cobwebs of the league finally dusted off, and the formlines of the first few matches are true, then they are just simply better than Kilkenny. And in front of their home fans, in the first ever Leinster championship game played in the county, they won’t want to have their bubble bursted. It’s not the biggest day for Galway. But, considering the hold their opponents have had on them for the last few years, it’s a big day nonetheless.
PREDICTION: Galway by 5