Smith and Galway looking forward to renewing rivalry with Kilkenny
Portumna clubman eager to test himself against the reigning champions
Andy Smith in action against Kilkenny in last year’s drawn All-Ireland final. Photograph: Inpho
Sunday in Semple Stadium, and whatever about the merits of playing Kilkenny – again – another important judgement day for Galway: not so much about being where they need to be, but going where they need to be going.
“I don’t know, are we in a better place?” asks midfielder Andy Smith, answering the question of whether or not Galway are stronger now compared to this time last year – and from that perspective Sunday’s semi-final will certainly reveal a lot.
Smith isn’t bothered by the fact that it’s the sixth meeting between the teams in the last two seasons, because Galway simply need a big game like this, and if Kilkenny happen to be the opposition then maybe better still. Because rewind to April 1st, 2012, and Galway suffered one of their biggest league defeats ever, Kilkenny hitting them with 3-12 to 0-6 – in the first 35 minutes – and ran out 25-point winners.
With that Galway went into the relegation play-off against Dublin, which, against all expectations, proved the springboard for the summer that followed – beating Kilkenny in the Leinster final, then forcing them to a replay in the All-Ireland, before losing out.
“Sure, this time last year we were fighting relegation, against Dublin,” says Smith. “This year we’re in a league semi-final. I do think we’ve brought on a few younger players, the likes of Davy Glennon, Conor Cooney, and that’s a help. But we've a few injuries as well, so it’s hard to know exactly where we are.
“I know last year, in the relegation play-off with Dublin, that’s where we got our championship team from. Look at Iarla Tannion, sort of by default, really, he got to play at midfield against Dublin. He came on and gave an exhibition, and nailed down that midfield spot. So you learn so much in tight battles like that and you’ll learn about individuals from this game on Sunday.
“And any day you go out against Kilkenny you try to battle with them, get the win. It’s obviously not easy. But looking forward to it, a massive battle. Kilkenny are a brilliant side, and we’re just going to have to battle for every ball.”
Galway aren’t out in the Leinster championship until the semi-finals, on June 16th, and won’t face any truly stern test until the Leinster final, on July 7th, where they’re likely to face Kilkenny again (unless Dublin, Wexford or Offaly spring a surprise). They did beat Kilkenny by a point, 3-11 to 0-17, in the opening round of this year’s league, but it seems last year’s league defeat is still as fresh in Smith’s mind.
“Now last year, we got humiliated down in Nowlan Park. April Fools Day and all. There was a lot of soul-searching after that. Training wasn’t too pleasant the Tuesday night after that hiding but you have to regroup and as they say, you learn an awful lot from your losses too. We did learn a lot. We got opened up in every department of the field. We took each game as it came after that, tried to improve on little things bit by bit in training. That day we were dead on our feet. We didn’t battle at all with Kilkenny and if you don’t you’ll just get wiped off the field. . . .”
Some say Galway could do without playing Kilkenny right now, better off keeping their next powder dry until the championship, although Smith is all up for it. Now approaching his 30th birthday, in July, the three-time All-Ireland club winner with Portumna still wonders why Galway hurling sometimes lacks the self-belief that runs strong at club level.
“With Portumna, we had massive belief in ourselves. We knew we were favourites. Every day we’re out, especially playing Kilkenny, we’re an underdog. I think Galway favour the underdogs’ tag. It brings the best out in us. Nobody gives us a chance, backs to the wall. I think the true colours come through. . . .
“It’s a whole west of the Shannon psyche. I don’t know what it is with senior set -ups with Galway, we just never seem to kick on and get results, grind out results, which we should be capable of doing but it never sort of comes through.
“But we’re delighted to be in a league semi-final. . . It’s not that we didn’t want to play Kilkenny. We’re looking forward to the challenge. It’s a tester of where you’re at, individually and collectively as a team. And I suppose we are the one team that are a threat to Kilkenny. We have a knack of opening them up and getting goals against them. . . .”
Sounds like a healthy mix of respect and confidence