Galway v Kilkenny, Croke Park, 4pm, Sunday, 1st July
Well hello again. I don’t know about you, but after the deluge of action we had in May and the early stages of June, it seems like ages since we’ve had a game. I mean, obviously, it isn’t. It would be quite a common hiatus, in any other year, but with the World Cup and the “Newbridge or Nowhere” saga grabbing our attention, it was almost as if the hurling championship was erased from our memory for the last few weeks.
But it’s back now, and what’s more, we’ve got a hell of a fixture to come back to. Now there are any number of holes we could pick about the fixing of Sunday’s game (Why are both Leinster and Munster finals on the same day? Why is the Joe McDonagh cup final on at the same time as the Munster final?) but let’s focus on the action shall we? Because it’s sure to be pretty damn good.
Now, if you’re a Galway man or woman, you’d be feeling pretty confident about this one. In fact, over-confidence is probably the one thing you’d be worried about. Galway are going into a Leinster final against Kilkenny and are not just favourites, but overwhelmingly so. And really, you couldn’t complain about that. I mean, they did beat them in Salthill about 6 weeks ago, and what’s more, they did it quite comprehensively.
Then again, if you wanted to be pernickety and pick holes in that performance, you could do so. There’s an argument, that that was a game in the melting pot for a lot longer than it should have been. Kilkenny never developed any sort of rhythm, but still, with TJ Reid ticking over the frees and having a goal disallowed with ten minutes to go, it wasn’t quite as comfortable for the Tribesmen as the 8 point final margin suggested.
On saying that, there’s no doubt that Galway were the better side in that game and have been, undoubtedly, the best side in this year’s championship. There’s no need to change if you’re Michael O’Donoghue, and indeed he hasn’t. But there is that nagging doubt that, despite how good they’ve been thus far, All-Ireland’s aren’t won this easily. They could find their backs against the wall in an All-Ireland semi-final. They could find it in an All-Ireland final. Or it could be on Sunday.
The problem for Kilkenny is that the level of psychological and physical dominance that they’ve had over teams for the majority of the Cody era, has now flipped on its head. Whereas once, a Galway forward would have nightmares about what the likes of Noel Hickey or Jackie Tyrrell would do to them, now it’s the turn of a Kilkenny forward (say, Luke Scanlan) to worry what Daithi Burke or Gearoid McInerney would do to him. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery you know. Galway looked at the model of a Cody championship winning side a few years ago (good stickmen with high work rate AND size) and now they’re the finest exponents of it.
On the other hand, there are question marks about the Kilkenny side. Padraig Walsh is one of their best hurlers, but he doesn’t have the level of…well…intimidation, that most of the best full backs have. There’s something still not quite right in the Kilkenny defence, with six goals being shipped in four games. Out the field, there’s been a lot of chopping and changing of forwards, with the likes of Ger Aylward and Martin Keoghan, stepping back out and then back in again. And Richie Hogan and Colin Fennelly are still not up to championship pace or weren’t, at least, the last day.
But then again there are a few crumbs of comfort for Cody to cling on to. Firstly, that game in Salthill was a game that Galway needed to win much more than Kilkenny did. They were at home, they hadn’t beaten Kilkenny in 7 championship encounters, they were defending All-Ireland champions, they had to put on a show. Not only that, but in the claustrophobic confines of Pearse Stadium, on a desert of a pitch (thank you Ed Sheeran) there wasn’t really any chance of the game becoming open. But in the vast spaces of Croke Park, so the theory goes anyway, it may suit the younger, quicker team better.
You win or you learn in this game. And on the rare occasions that Cody hasn’t won over the past two decades, he’s usually learned a lot. What he will have learned from the Salthill experience is that when his main man (TJ) is bottled up there’s still something lacking in the Kilkenny forward line. It was also very noticeable the distinct size difference, both in terms of width, and height, between the two outfits last day. With some match ups,you would have been forgiven for thinking it was a senior team up against a minor outfit.
There may have been a few eyebrows raised at the inclusion of Billy Ryan in the Kilkenny line up but there really shouldn’t be. If there’s been one constant in Cody’s tenure as manager, it’s been his ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat with his team selection in a big game. So whether it be John Hoyne in the All-Ireland final of 2000, or Walter Walsh in the final replay of 2012 or Liam Blanchfield in the semi-final replay of 2016, he has made a habit of promoting guys from out of nowhere. And what’s more, those players have usually delivered.
Then again it’s a big ask. It’s a big ask of-not just Billy Ryan-but Enda Morrissey, Martin Keoghan, Richie Leahy and even Paddy Deegan. Galway have been building towards this, not just for the last 6 months, but probably 6 years. Ever since Anthony Cunningham took over as manager, there was a concerted effort to get Galway to win an All-Ireland. Now that they’ve engineered themselves into the position of dominance, they are loathe to give it up easily. You could argue that a lot of their players, including incumbent hurler of the year Joe Canning, are playing better now than they were this time last year. But will that form line continue? Do they have, an extra gear that they can reach?
There were any amount of positives for Kilkenny to come out of their most recent game against Wexford. The fact that they were able to win coming from so far behind was encouraging. The fact that they emptied their bench and were getting stronger, and not weaker, was even more of a fillip. Perhaps that will make a difference for them on Sunday and, no doubt, they will fancy their chances. But maybe this game is a little too soon for them. They might not yet, be fully prepared for an ambush. So Galway were deserving winners in Salthill. They may well win again on Sunday. But if they should meet a third time in this championship…well, all bets are off.
PREDICTION: Galway by 4