It may have taken three months of so-so hurling, but eventually the 2015 All-Ireland championship was emphatically ignited by the remarkable battle between Galway and Seamus Callanan sorry…. Tipperary, the result of which confirmed a repeat of 2012’s two episode showpiece between the westerners and reigning champions Kilkenny.
Somewhat overshadowed in the media in the early part of the week by the story of whether or not a man should have a ban for punching an opponent twice overturned, hurling’s centrepiece will hope to pick up where the second semi-final left off. Kilkenny go into Sunday’s game as favourites, but only marginally and this favouritism is logically based on the wealth of championship winning experience which runs throughout the spine of this side. Of course, the sides met back in July with Kilkenny relatively comfortable victors on a scoreline of 1-25 to 2-15, but history has shown us as recently as both 2012 and 2013 that resoundingly comfortable provincial defeats can be turned on their heads come September. No one will forget the pummelling Kilkenny took in the 2012 Leinster Final and it took a Henry Shefflin masterclass in the drawn final –perhaps his greatest ever performance in the black and amber- before Kilkenny could eventually put Galway to the sword, rather comfortably in the end, in their third throwdown of the summer. Similarly Cork brushed Clare aside in the 2013 Munster semi-final before Shane O’ Donnell’s remarkable hat-trick –again in a replay- led Clare to victory on a magical, almost mythical autumn evening in Croke Park.
The reality is that a team tends to learn more in defeat than it ever does in victory. Galway absolutely steamrolled through an admittedly poor Cork team in the quarter-final before showing considerable resilience and true grit to respond to Tipperary’ and Callanan’s repeat dagger blows by relentlessly driving and picking off points before Shane Moloney’s dramatic and deserved winner. They have found new outlets, particularly in Cathal Mannion and Jason Flynn to take the pressure off a strangely misfiring Joe Canning and seem to rely less now on goals than was traditionally the case. Meanwhile, the midfield duo of Andy Smith and David Burke have been perhaps the most impressive midfield pairing in the country this summer,, though they will face their stiffest challenge yet this weekend in Conor Fogarty and Michael Fennelly.
Galway have powerful ball winners the length and breadth of the field but as Callanan showed last month their full back line –and not just Padraig Mannion- is highly susceptible to the timeless tactic of the long ball in towards the square. Now Seamus Callanan is one of the finest attackers in the country but in TJ Reid, Kilkenny probably have the finest forward in the game. The Ballyhale Shamrocks man is a supreme athlete and even allowing for his breath-taking stick work, his fielding of the ball is virtually peerless. Galway need to cut off the supply inside, but that means shutting down Michael Fennelly, the ever-impressive Cillian Buckley and the reigning hurler-of-the-year, Richie Hogan.
Hogan is repeatedly referred to as an extremely intelligent hurler, essentially meaning that he has incredible split-second awareness of how the game is evolving around him. It is unlikely that there is another player, on either side, who can match his speed of thought –and possibly his all-round skill set- and this is what makes him so vitally important to Kilkenny. While Reid and the inside line will be relied on to do the scoreboard damage Hogan will be expected to conduct the orchestra from further out the field. We’ve no hesitancy in saying that if Hogan and Reid perform as they did in last year’s drawn All-Ireland final, then Liam McCarthy will be making the journey Noreside once more.
We are not saying however that this is exactly what will happen. Callanan aside, Galway were able to stifle Tipperary’s marquee forwards in the semi-final, with the highly touted John ‘Bubbles’ O’ Dwyer barely seeing the ball all game. Tipperary’s forwards were heavily criticised in the game’s aftermath but that showed a complete lack of respect for what the Galway halfback line –led in the second half by a rejuvenated Iarla Tannion- did in completely stifling their theretofore free-scoring opponents. A strong half-back line has been the backbone of umpteen All-Ireland winning teams –in recent years alone we have seen the extraordinary Delaney, Hogan, Walsh trio and prior to them the incredibly dominant Clare line of Daly, McMahon and Doyle- and both sides will know that gaining the upper hand on the ‘forty-five’ means a surplus of ball raining down on the opposition full-back line. We’re still giving the Kilkenny trio of Buckley, Kieran Joyce and Padraig Walsh the nod over the Tannion, Aidan Harte and Daithi Burke combination, especially as all three have already excelled in the white pressure of an All-Ireland final.
Perhaps the biggest question hanging over Kilkenny –or at least an individual Kilkenny player- is over this year’s captain and full-back Joey Holden. The Ballyhale Shamrocks man has been given the unenviable task of taking over stewardship of the small rectangle from one of the most complete defenders ever, JJ Delaney. He spent winter and spring manning the position in the Shamrocks’ successful All-Ireland Club Championship campaign and has done very little wrong thus far. Joe Canning did score a stunning goal ostensibly off Holden, the last time the sides met -unquestionably one of the best goals you will ever see in Croke Park- but Galway’s spearhead was largely kept in check thereafter. Naturally, bigger questions will be asked on Sunday but there is no evidence so far to suggest Holden is unsuited to the position and he will assuredly have help.
We couldn’t preview Sunday’s showpiece without mentioning the dirtiest word in this year’s hurling championship, the sweeper. While gaelic football is decried and annually announced as either dead or dying –invariably by the increasingly grating Joe Brolly- hurling was thought to be free from the shackles of systems, ideologies and sweepers. Which is kind of a crock of shite, to be honest, but more on that later. Waterford were perhaps the greatest purveyor of the sweeper system this summer but the system was found wanting in the semi-final defeat to Kilkenny, as when the Deise were required to chase the game in the last quarter, they simply lacked for bodies near the Kilkenny goal. Systems, if you will, and specific player’s roles have always been tweaked in hurling –and indeed every sport- and frankly, their longevity depends on their success over a sustained period of time. Teams regularly play with two man full forward lines, a more defensive midfielder on clean-up duty or a designated half-forward with a licence to roam.
What most teams want nowadays –in addition to forwards who are willing to harry and hassle the outrushing, opposition backs- is a player who can sweep up the dirty ball in and around the full-back line, as you simply can’t leave your full-back isolated against a ball-winner who is being fed a glut of quality ball. Noel Hickey –one of the greatest Kilkenny full-backs of all time- gave up three goals to Lar Corbett in the 2010 decider, not because he’s a loose marker, quite the opposite in fact, but because Tipperary’s half-back line were on top that day and were reigning excellent ball in all day towards that day’s match winner. There were only so many times Hickey could stick a finger in the dam. It’s worth noting that a Kilkenny full-back has rarely been left completely isolated since. Indeed, Galway’s second goal in the Leinster Final came as the result of a mix-up between Jackie Tyrrell and Joey Holden and not because of the creation of a ‘one-on-one’.
We wouldn’t dream of claiming we know much about hurling in the 70s and 80s but the idea of devising alternate strategies was of course bandied around then also. Indeed it was Galway who first utilised the two man full-forward line in their 1986 All-Ireland semi-final victory over Kilkenny the result of which was the tactic being deemed both revelatory and bold in the national press. Teams were assuredly forced to be reactive in the event of such a strategy being utilised once more. This is the nature of not just hurling but all sports. You are confronted with a problem, you devise a plan which you hope will counter it and then you apply it on the day. Still, for all the talk of new systems and the unnecessary complication of the game, Brian Cody’s mastery is most often displayed by a subtle tactical change. Richie Hogan’s move to centre forward in last year’s drawn All-Ireland is typical of this, so too the unexpected selections of John Power in the 2014 replay and Walter Walsh –who would receive the man-of-the-match award on debut- in the 2012 replay. Cody likes to shake things up a little and indeed it was Walsh’s place that Power took last year.*
In any event, the preparatory stuff will be done with by now and any selection dilemmas will have been settled by both management teams. For the next few days, it will be about keeping the players focused and somewhat cloistered, far away from the madding crowds. The Galway County Board and Galway hurling en masse clearly have faith in Anthony Cunningham and he has repaid this with a second All-Ireland final appearance in four years. His utterance to Cody after the Leinster Final that he would see him in September shows an admirable combination of confidence and hubris though the hyper-realist Cody seemed reticent to take any deeper meaning from the statement. There is perhaps a slight edginess between the two men going back to 2012 and if Galway have been noted for their confrontational style this summer, Kilkenny will, to a man, happily mix it with them if that is what the occasion requires.
Galway, closely followed by the rest of the country, would rejoice in victory on Sunday and they have absolutely every chance to succeed. That said, all bar one- Ger Aylward- of Kilkenny’s starting fifteen have started and won in Croke Park on what we around here regard as the greatest day in the sporting calendar. One can counter this with the fact that the majority of Galway’s team have tasted minor success in Croke Park but the stakes in terms of pressure and expectation are unquestionably higher in the main event on the first Sunday in September.
Galway will not die wondering and it would not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed this year’s championship if they ended their county’s twenty-seven year Liam McCarthy drought. Still, the feeling is that Kilkenny are metronomically balanced this year and the quality of their performance in the semi-final against Waterford may have been underappreciated in some quarters. Both sides have been errant in attack this season, particularly Galway, and as the last three renewals of hurling’s showpiece confirmed, this simply will not cut muster.
The champions’ progress has been quietly impressive and under Cody there has rarely been a failure to rise to the occasion. If they peak on Sunday then it may well be a bridge too far for Galway
Straight Up Sport Prediction: Kilkenny by 2.
*At the time of writing the teams had not been named but don’t be surprised if Brian Cody makes, what on the face of it, appears to be a bold selection call.