Champions Galway drawn in to Kilkenny's familiar territory
In 20 years under Brian Cody, Kilkenny have won five of six championship replays
Galway’s Cathal Mannion and Richie Leahy of Kilkenny in action during the drawn Leinster final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Paudie O’Neill, then a Tipperary selector, remembers the aftermath of the drawn All-Ireland final in 2014. It had been a fireworks display of a match, featuring 54 scores and marking the first time both finalists had scored – as in totalled – more than 30 points. .
In the players’ lounge in Croke Park, it was time to draw breath.
“We went down to the players’ lounge to chill out,” says O’Neill. “Fellas weren’t drinking alcohol or anything but the Kilkenny lads were essentially hunted onto the bus. They were probably refocusing guys in a sense of, ‘hey, that’s not good enough. We’re not going to get comfortable with that’.”
Kilkenny’s record in replays over the past 20 years is not flawless but it has only one entry in the debit column. Five years ago they were beaten by Dublin in championship for the first time since 1942 but all other drawn matches have been followed up by success in the replay.
If there is a theme it has to do with manager, Brian Cody, who always tended to view draws as closer to defeat than victory and reacted by making more changes than his opponents for the replay.
The 2014 final was reflective of the overall trend. Tipperary couldn’t see any way to improve the starting team; Cody made three changes to his line-up.
According to O’Neill, Tipp had played nearly as well as they could and the challenge would be to reproduce the display, let alone improve on it.
“We had played to our max and with a three-week gap, we felt we didn’t manage it as well as we might have. Three weeks was probably too long and maybe we should have left the players go back to their clubs. It would have taken them out of the bubble for a week and maybe put them in a more relaxed state of mind.
“In retrospect what was the point of three weeks’ training when we were already at our peak. We debated about picking up injuries if they went back to the clubs but hindsight is great – we should have.”
As there is clearly no point in making changes for their own sake, the newcomers had to improve the team. In the All-Ireland final replays of 2012 and ’14, the Man of the Match award went on each occasion to one of Kilkenny’s call-ups, Walter Walsh and Kieran Joyce.
That selection process isn’t always straightforward, according to Martin Fogarty, coach and selector with Cody between 2005 and 2013.
“Walter was nearly not on the panel the first day,” he says about the 2012 final. “Hindsight’s a wonderful thing and it dawned on us after that that he had been playing well but we weren’t looking at it clearly enough.”
“After the draw you do look at things again and we always tried to go with players in form but sometimes with a rookie in form you mightn’t notice him as easily, which sounds a terrible thing to say but it can happen with the best of intentions.
“In the lead-up to the first final, JJ Delaney who was at full back, was asking was there any chance of putting Walter on him. He was seeing what we weren’t seeing, maybe – that this young lad is playing well. If JJ is saying that he wants to mark him in preparation for an All-Ireland final, maybe there’s something more to it.”
Cody has the advantage of being highly practised at replays. Sunday’s will be his seventh in championship and he has won six.
“Our lads weren’t as experienced dealing with those situations as Kilkenny were,” says O’Neill. “They had been through it in an All-Ireland context just two years previously.
“There’s a different psychology at play in replays. You have to wipe the system nearly clear of everything because the second day never replicates the first. People were talking about it being a classic final and I suppose it was high-scoring and entertaining but what Kilkenny could do the second day was make it more attritional, close down space and that’s more or less what happened.”
Fogarty says the Kilkenny attitude to replays was broadly that apart from major fire alarms they were strictly past tense.
“We looked on the drawn All-Ireland as being the same as a semi-final. To us the replay was a new final and we’d just reached it and were going off to prepare for it. Unless there had been a disaster, we wouldn’t go into the draw in any forensic detail. The thing was to concentrate on getting ourselves right.
“Sometimes changes are obvious. There may have been the toss of a coin between two players the first day so you’d probably give the other fella a chance in the replay.”
No county has beaten Cody’s teams in championship as often as Galway (four times) but this will be a third replay between the counties and the Westerners have yet to win on the second day. It will also be the third replay in Thurles for Kilkenny and they have yet to lose one at the venue. Very much their territory.