GAA weekend that was: Front running looks to suit Galway just fine

Westerners have used league and Leinster to make themselves front runners for the first time since 1990

What an irony for the Leinster hurling final to attract a record attendance to a match featuring the province's most anomalous tenant. Needless to say, Wexford were involved – as they were when the previous high point had been established 20 years ago and in turn the record before that, set in 1957.

It was, however, remarkable that the crowds from the south-east were so inspired on the back of promotion from Division 1B and a memorable championship victory, as the other record attendances were set in years when Wexford were All-Ireland champions and facing Kilkenny.

The irony from Galway’s perspective is that they have the least easily moved support imaginable and their previous Leinster finals against Kilkenny and Dublin averaged attendances of 27,905 as against Sunday’s 60,032.

On the previous and inaugural occasion that the county won the provincial title, in 2012, confidence was in such short supply that little more than a third, 22,171, of last weekend’s crowd turned up for the match with then All-Ireland champions Kilkenny.


There is great significance in this because for there to be crowds and expectation about Galway’s prospects flies in the face of the county’s frequently aimless existence since last winning the All-Ireland with the back-to-back team of 1987-88. (A county knows it is becalmed when the jubilee team at the All-Ireland final is also the last time the MacCarthy Cup was actually won – as was the case in 2012).

During those years it appeared that Galway's chances always depended on their blindsiding teams so comprehensively that the opposition struggled to react. As a result they have defeated Kilkenny under Brian Cody more frequently than any other county – three times – but have been on the receiving end from the same opponents so often – 11 times with two draws – that in recent years the current team had appeared to develop a complex about playing them.

It was for that reason that the Leinster final had been earmarked after Galway's awesome display against All-Ireland champions Tipperary in this year's league final. It wasn't so much the advantage of proceeding straight to August without complications – although that was part of it – but the need to beat Kilkenny and exorcise the ghost.

It speaks eloquently to Galway’s performances since the league that fewer and fewer people mention Kilkenny as the required barometer of the Westerners’ championship condition.

For those with long memories there is another cloud on the horizon and that is the relationship with Cork, a county Galway were forever beating in semi-finals in the old days and in more recent summers a few qualifier trimmings have been administered. Were Cork to win Munster next weekend, however, they could only meet Galway in September – a stage of the championship at which the Tribesmen have yet to beat them in six attempts going back nearly 100 years.

Such considerations are for the future. In the meantime the question will simply be, are Galway different this year? So far they have answered emphatically.

A friend – self-styled a ‘long suffering’ Galway supporter – made the point last year that the county has virtually no experience of going into big championship matches as favourites and winning them. The All-Ireland semi-final against Cork in 2012 was about the most recent example up until this year.

The weight of favouritism hasn’t sat easily on the team and a reputation for inconsistency became self-fulfilling as few were inclined to trust Galway in All-Ireland finals of which there have been six since the last victory 29 years ago. You’d have to go back to 1990 for a final they contested as favourites, and as that was against Cork it went famously wrong.

Sunday saw the county take on an improving Wexford as red-hot favourites and yet not panic when the match took detours along the way. The argument before the final that Galway hadn’t been adequately tested so far wasn’t entirely debunked but against a team that had eliminated Leinster champions Kilkenny and will be a handful in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, they were immensely comfortable.

Another element of the team's progress has been the unfussy acquisition of the Leinster title. Former manager Conor Hayes, the captain in 1987 and '88, was a leading advocate of the move into the province and during the past nine seasons he has felt that Galway hadn't quite mastered the experience. Part of that had to be down to the presence of an exceptional Kilkenny team but with the county's track record they should have been doing better than one win up until Sunday.

Galway emphasised their status at the weekend. We have to wait before the ultimate verdict is in but to date the focus has been on performance in each match and it hasn’t dipped with a points average of 30.

Their best chance of winning an All-Ireland came in 2012 when the final went to a replay. That was the only other year that Leinster was won. Having placed themselves in the optimal position they have the opportunity to win this championship as front runners.

Maybe that was the secret all along.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times