The Leinster championship that Galway joined at the start of my playing career was a different beast to the one we’ve witnessed this season.
In Galway’s second year, 2010, we drew with Offaly in the Leinster semi-final and only beat them by a point in the replay. A year later Dublin knocked us out. The year after that we won it for the first time, but we’ve only won it a couple of times since – despite being favourites or second favourites every year.
The point is that for most of those years the competition had depth. Kilkenny and Galway would be seen as the front runners, but every year they would be looking over their shoulders at Dublin and Wexford, braced for what was coming. In my playing career Dublin gave us awful trouble.
I always found playing against Dublin difficult. We never got anything easy and I hated going to Parnell Park, no matter what it was, Walsh Cup, league or championship. Dublin eliminated us from the championship on scoring difference on that famous night in Parnell in 2019. The next time the teams met in the championship, two years later, Dublin won again.
This might sound like a mad statistic, but Galway have never beaten Dublin in the championship in Croke Park. People were wondering why Michael Donoghue wanted to play Dublin’s home games against Wexford and Galway in Croke Park, but he would have been very aware of a statistic like that.
Dublin won’t fear Galway in Croke Park on Sunday. I know that from experience. They might be down about 10 players from last year, but it might give them even more of a cause.
But in the round robin format you need at least four teams threatening each other for a place in the final, or for the third qualifying spot. Munster has that dynamic but Leinster has lost it.
Dublin were only beaten by six points in Nowlan Park last weekend, but they didn’t look like winning at any stage in the second half and Derek Lyng wasn’t that happy with his team’s performance afterwards. Kilkenny expected to win and they expected to play better.
To make sure of their place in next year’s Leinster championship they need to beat Kilkenny on Sunday and I can’t see that happening.
Whatever history says, Galway will expect to beat Dublin on Sunday, solely based on this season’s form lines. Galway, though, have injury worries. There are doubts about Cathal Mannion and Brian Concannon and they are two huge players. It’s hard to replace leaders like that. Others will have to stand up.
The big problem for Leinster is Wexford’s decline. To make sure of their place in next year’s Leinster championship they need to beat Kilkenny on Sunday and I can’t see that happening. They might stay with them for 40 or 50 minutes, but that will be the height of it.
If they lose, they’ll be depending for their lives on Westmeath beating Antrim in Mullingar but I’m not so sure that result will work out for them either. It’s going to be hard for Westmeath to mentally get up for that game so soon after making such a massive effort in Wexford Park last weekend and Antrim could take advantage of that.
I know it’s only 12 months since Wexford beat Kilkenny in Nowlan Park, but Kilkenny are a better team now, with a deeper panel. The big question is how Wexford can have fallen so far in a year?
I wonder if this group of players have moved on properly from the five years they had under Davy Fitzgerald. It was always going to be a huge challenge for Darragh Egan coming in after a manager who has such a big personality and who seemed to have a great relationship with those players.
After one season, when it looked like Davy might leave them, 10 or 12 of them reportedly drove down to his house in Clare to beg him to stay. A bunch of those Wexford players were at Davy’s wedding. There seemed to be a real bond there.
Davy’s teams also have a very distinct style of play that would have been drilled into Wexford over that five-year period, and it was going to be hard for Egan to come in and put his own stamp on it. They believed in Davy’s tactics; I’m not so sure they believe in Egan’s, and that’s not necessarily his fault.
Whatever the reason, they’re not in a good place now. Relegation would be a disaster for Wexford and it would have a seriously negative impact on the Leinster championship. The impression that Kilkenny and Galway have already pulled away from all the other teams in Leinster would be even harder to argue with in 12 months’ time.
It’s not their fault. It’s up to all the other teams to have their houses in order and get up to the required standard. In the long run, you wonder what it will mean for Galway and Kilkenny as All-Ireland contenders in the rest of this year’s championship. Would they have wanted closer matches in the round robin series, or are they just as happy to get out of Leinster without having to kill themselves?
In Munster, the margins have been tiny in most of the games and every team has been going flat out. You wonder what toll that will take on them down the road. It was obvious when Clare got to the All-Ireland semi-final last year that they didn’t have much left in the tank and that’s the risk for the team that loses the Munster final.
Not only have you come out of a tough round robin series, you must then deal with the disappointment of losing a Munster final, after another seriously draining match, and face into a quarter-final. The Munster champions, in contrast, get a month off. Apart from winning the title, those extra weeks of rest are a huge prize for the Munster winners.
For all the teams who played last weekend and who have something on the line this weekend, this week will be all about recovering mentally. In terms of hard physical activity, they will be doing next to nothing in training. Every intercounty team now has expert strength and conditioning people who will handle their physical recovery, but getting the mind fresh again is a different challenge.
I can’t see Wexford recovering well enough to save themselves against Kilkenny. Too much damage has been done over the last few weeks. Looking back over the season what performance, in the league or the championship, can they take encouragement from? Whether they stay up or go down will ultimately be out of their hands I think and that’s a horrible position to be in.