Just how do you skin these Cats?
ALL-IRELAND HURLING CHAMPIONSHIP:It was back to business for Kilkenny last Sunday leaving the rest of the country to catch up
AS THE dust settles on the All-Ireland hurling championship, each county looks for small consolations. No team has progressed as rapidly as Galway did over the summer and even as they analyse the reasons for their defeat in last Sunday’s replay, they are entitled to take heart on several fronts.
Within the context of the game, there was that exhilarating and bewildering phase of play which started with Joe Canning’s sideline cut and ended with Cyril Donnellan getting sent off. In between, Canning fired a daisy-cutter which hit the post and would have brought the teams level on the scoreboard.
And in the post-mortem, it became obvious that Galway’s preparation for the match was nightmarish. Not only was goalkeeper James Skehill unfit to play, it emerged during the week that Canning himself also played through the replay while injured.
It was unreasonable to expect Galway to prosper without the Portumna man firing on all cylinders. And yet, something that Brian Cody said almost as an afterthought during the post-match interviews serves as the most chilling and accurate reflection on the last game of the championship season.
“I don’t think there was the slightest if-but-maybe about the game at all. And that is a fact.”
It is a fact. Even if Canning’s goal had gone in; but what would have happened if Donnellan had not been sent-off; maybe if Galway had got their noses in front, they would have driven on: all of those variables require a wildly optimistic narrative to see Galway winning the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
No, after enduring a summer in which their form fluctuated, it was back to business for Kilkenny in the defining match of the year. The novelty of what Galway did to Kilkenny in the Leinster final – pulling the defensive unit out of position, isolating their defenders and running at them, blowing them away on the scoreboard early on – was entirely absent.
Now, Kilkenny dictated the oxygen levels in the match and it was all the Galway defenders could do to just clear ball anywhere down field without being hooked or blocked or hunted down by the marauding Kilkenny forwards. More often than not the ball was returned with venom.
The biggest ovation that debutante Walter Walsh received was not for his goal and three points, but for bustling a Galway player over the line – for that, Henry Shefflin made a point of running over to the younger man and clapping him on the back. The tone was set and Kilkenny didn’t even blink when the Galway men conspired to sting them for two first-half goals in a minute.
Kilkenny just rolled on and the younger team never really got a chance to implement the game which had so bothered the champions in the Leinster final and saw them trail by seven points in the drawn All-Ireland final.
“All of their work-rate is geared to that intensity,” Tom Helebert, the Galway selector, would remark of the victors afterwards.
“It is sustained over time – it is not done over a short period. They have built it repetitively over time. New players are not rushed in. They are introduced carefully into
a stable working process and that is the advantage they have. It is easy to fringe the edges when you have a very strong core. That is where we are trying to get to.”
That is where everyone is trying to get to.
Kilkenny’s attitude and application offered cold comfort to rival counties everywhere. This isn’t the first season that Kilkenny teams have shown signs of vulnerability only to reconfirm their superiority with big September performances.
Twenty minutes into the drawn All-Ireland final, it was possible to convince yourself that you were witnessing a changing of the guard. Galway may still be the coming team, but right now they are in the same place as every other team in Ireland – trying to figure out a way of ending this extraordinary period of Kilkenny dominance.
“It is not Kilkenny’s fault,” says Eamon Cregan, the former Limerick hurler and manager. “They set their standard and want to achieve it and I think it is tremendous to see Henry Shefflin with nine All-Irelands.
“I thought it would never be seen again. For the rest of us, it is an eye opener. Now, other counties are doing the work at underage. You take Henry out of it and people will say the team will go down. They will go down a certain degree.
“But only a little. Nobody likes a team to be too dominant in any sport. But I do think it was a very good championship and there were a number of positives. Kilkenny have come to a level that everyone else must try to meet and each county has to look at the game they are playing at the moment.
“Kilkenny have a tremendous advantage in that hurling is number one and there is no other sport. In Limerick, rugby is important, Gaelic football and soccer. Cork have just recently felt the impact of other sports with young (Darren) Sweetnam (leaving to join Munster rugby).
“But the attitude must change. Kilkenny started their programme at least 10 years ago – and in fact it was really started by Canon Tommy Maher way back when he was involved in the 1960s when Tipperary used to beat Kilkenny regularly. So the level that is required has gone way beyond everything else.”
As Cregan sees it, Kilkenny are not particularly interested in the acquisition of underage titles any more. “It is grand to win underage, but it is not the be all and end all. Minor is just a stepping stone through to the senior team. Every young fella going to primary school carries a hurl.
“They then come to secondary school and one of the things in third level, one thing that is very obvious is the number of Kilkenny hurlers going to St Patrick’s Training College. And they come back into the system and on it goes.
“Their skill is outstanding and the way they have added strength and aggression and that will to win means that they have this advantage. It is all about the supply line.”
Cody’s team selection for the replay boldly emphasised this, when he elevated Walter Walsh to the starting line-up for his debut.
Even Eddie Brennan, who spent a decade inside Kilkenny dressingrooms, considered the move to be a big gamble. But Walsh and Cillian Buckley recovered from the disappointment of losing the under-21 All-Ireland final to Clare and had a significant say in the outcome of the senior final replay.
Both responded positively to the pressure of having to perform in the biggest game of the year. Galway’s bad luck between the drawn match and the replay was almost spooky.
The injury Skehill suffered on the Friday evening was enough to upset any team, but to have it occur on top of Canning’s ligament tear is ferociously bad luck.
“As well as that, they had to contend with the slight controversy caused by comments that Canning made about Shefflin’s role in the drawn match. It was perfect for Kilkenny – they kept the head down and retreated to Nowlan Park to plot and plan and to work like demons.
And that old ethic – the insatiable desire to work for the team was at the forefront of this latest Kilkenny win. And as ever, it was the aspect of the victory that most pleased Cody.
“It’s everything,” he said, reflecting on the instances when the chasing Kilkenny forwards hustled Galway defenders out of possession.
“It’s everything. You are talking about a situation where the ball could be up in our square and over our bar, but players working hard – you could take Eoin Larkin and his work rate was stratospheric. As a captain, he performed as a captain should perform. Eoin – and everybody else as well.
“And at midfield – Cillian Buckley had a massive performance; Mick Fennelly was back to his best. It was a tribute to everyone involved.”
The unevenness of Kilkenny’s form remains a concern for them. They had to dig deep to summon up this latest triumph of collective resolve through which their individual brilliance shines through. Galway were the more consistent force all summer, but they ran into Kilkenny in vintage form last Sunday and suffered for it. It remains to be seen whether Kilkenny will struggle to tap into that form next season as well. But as Cregan sees it, the onus is on other teams to do what Galway almost did to perfection this season; take something new to the Cats.
“You take Clare. They played tremendously well against Kilkenny at under-21. They played a different brand of hurling. The thing I can’t understand is: why compete with Kilkenny at their own game? Under a dropping ball, Kilkenny have all the tricks of the trade.
“And they are doing it at training morning noon and night. Go to the Leinster final and Galway contested every ball by running at it and breaking it and winning it.
“Kilkenny were totally stunned by how Galway approached that game. But as it progressed, there was a stage when Galway went back to their old style of hurling for five or six minutes and they suddenly lost control of the game.
“The drawn game was a kind of replay of the Leinster final but not to the same intensity. And they weren’t at the races the last day because Kilkenny had analysed their game and counteracted it.
“In the Leinster final, it took Killkenny 20 minutes to score. In the replay, they were on the board immediately. But I feel it is up to the other counties to take a different game to Kilkenny.”
But at season’s end the old question remains – will that be enough?