Kilkenny have plugged all the gaps since July
ALL-IRELAND SENIOR HURLING FINAL Galway v Kilkenny:SEVEN WEEKS isn’t that long a stretch but it feels like a lifetime. Never has a provincial final been so prominent in the deliberations of early September. Tomorrow’s GAA All-Ireland hurling final reunites the Leinster finalists for the first time since 2000.
That wouldn’t be a happy precedent for champions Kilkenny, who 12 years ago re-administered the spanking they had given Offaly in Leinster but this is a different world. For all of the talk that Galway had re-shaped the hurling landscape with their phenomenal coup against Kilkenny, the brave talk has faded to a whisper.
It’s an indication of the dominance of Brian Cody’s teams that amongst their eight All-Ireland titles, not one had to be won through the qualifiers.
Beating the same team twice in the one championship is difficult in either football or hurling for reasons that are obvious: motivation, familiarity with the opponent’s game plan and the opportunity to address weaknesses in the team.
In this case there is more to it than just those dynamics. Under Cody, Kilkenny have never lost two successive matches to the same opposition, a thirst for vengeance or redress with which Galway are sadly familiar.
One observer in the county noted there was among some, “a sense of fear” at what might happen.
That’s probably unduly alarmist. There are plenty of reasons to believe that under Anthony Cunningham’s management Galway have been a mentally sturdier, less flaky collective.
Even the audacity of the Leinster final proved that they had strong self-belief.
They also have Joe Canning threatening to deliver his best season and crown it with an All-Ireland, an achievement that most would regard as inevitable at some stage.
But the speed, energy and disrespect for reputation that constituted the high-wire act in July is going to be difficult to repeat.
It’s one of Galway hurling’s most enduring narratives: the explosive opening, with goals going off and the opposition in a state of shock. But it always raises the question as to what happens when the earth doesn’t move in the first 10 minutes.
Disregarding psychobabble and sundry motivations, Kilkenny simply bring an indisputably stronger hand to the table. JJ Delaney has known satisfying afternoons on Canning and he wasn’t there to influence the Leinster final. Maybe he’ll mark him tomorrow or Jackie Tyrrell will be given the opportunity to atone for last July. Either way, the options are already improved.
Hurler of the Year Michael Fennelly brings to centrefield exactly the strength, athleticism and combativeness that was missing the last day and up front Aidan Fogarty has run into terrific form in the All-Ireland series.
It’s a decisive improvement but it doesn’t doom Galway. The challengers don’t have to demolish Kilkenny in the first quarter and don’t need to win by 10 points but they will need to be in contention throughout, as no-one launches comebacks against the champions.
The defensive reservations will be under the spotlight, as the back six weren’t tested to any serious degree seven weeks ago and still Kilkenny got in for two goals, which was sufficient to spook Galway supporters into going nowhere until the match was over.
Kilkenny’s ability to get goals at the time that is most beneficial for them and most demoralising for the opposition is legendary.
A tight match can burst its elastic in the space of two minutes.
Galway would have preferred not to have lost the under-21 semi-final to Kilkenny given the prominence of the players in their senior panel but again it’s not an infallible pointer. For whatever reason seniors still eligible for the under-age grades often don’t perform to the best of their ability – anxiety, trying to do too much or simple lack of focus.
The gap between the teams in terms of experience and accomplishment is vast, as embodied in Henry Shefflin’s bid to set a new record for senior All-Ireland medals but age brings its disadvantages too and if the match is open going into the last 10 minutes, Galway will fancy their chances.
It’s been a strange year for Kilkenny unlike any other since 2004. Similarly to then, the team has stuttered from awesome displays of destruction to less impressive performances. Galway can take comfort from the fact they last met the champions after the shock and awe of the Leinster semi-final against Dublin, just as tomorrow Kilkenny are coming off the annihilation of their closest rivals in recent years, Tipperary.
All of these power plays take their toll and a subdued display can’t be ruled out, either.
But the unshakeable core consideration that militates against Galway is that in the areas where they did most damage – centrefield, full forwards and half backs – Kilkenny are stronger and given the unlikelihood of another first-quarter blitzkrieg will Galway believe they can take this all the way?
A second ascent looks too steep.