Galway have made big strides but may still fall short
The importance of Reid and Hogan to Kilkenny bears the constant repetition it inspires
Galway’s Joe Canning. He now has an attacking orchestra to lead rather than performing solo. Photograph: INPHO/James Crombie
Nothing concentrates the mind as much as coming face-to-face with a significant opportunity. This weekend Galway have the county’s best chance of bridging the great divide back to 1988 since the 1990 All-Ireland when they unexpectedly lost the final to Cork.
Recent All-Ireland hurling finals have been touched by ephemeral sensation. Three seasons ago came the first replay in 53 years and 12 months later the atmospheric twilight of the Clare-Cork replay, followed last September by the asteroid collision of the Tipperary-Kilkenny draw.
This weekend’s climax to a humdrum championship might not find itself included in the above category but it’s a fascinating prospect between the best teams in the championship this summer.
When the counties met three years ago, Kilkenny had the advantage of having lost when the teams met in Leinster after Galway ran riot in the final. The value of the diagnostic and the extra match left them better placed for the second and third meeting.
This time that advantage is Galway’s. Anthony Cunningham has strengthened the personnel and overseen an improvement in performance but most of all in resistance.
There has long been a template for Galway’s big wins: pace, power and precise finishing that holes the opposition below the water line early on and makes pursuit almost futile. In the quarter-final destruction of Cork this was immediately apparent in the early goal from Jonathan Glynn.
The semi-final against Tipperary was different. This time Galway got hit for goals but kept remorselessly chipping away at the deficit, point by point, until the last one put them ahead with just seconds on the clock. This has all been achieved without Joe Canning hitting top gear.
There are very good reasons for taking Galway to win this. They’re better than in 2012 whereas Kilkenny are not as good. They finally have an attacking orchestra for Canning to lead rather than perform solo.
The champions’ full-back line – even allowing for Joey Holden’s steady displays – looks like any line that no longer features JJ Delaney and will be targeted accordingly.
The problem for Galway is that when they came up against Kilkenny in July they really struggled to make a collective impression and ended up in the old familiar position of showering Canning with speculative deliveries. Maybe the overall threat has greater pace and urgency but that hypothesis will be better tested tomorrow than it was by Cork or an insipid Tipperary.
A further complication is that Kilkenny have also improved. Michael Fennelly could not play in the Leinster final but was improving all the time against Waterford, and Richie Power is back on the paddock. He made a similarly late return to last year’s championship and effectively won the All-Ireland with his goals.
The importance of TJ Reid and Richie Hogan bears the constant repetition it inspires. Unlike Tipperary, who functioned with one forward, Kilkenny have two who can score points from anywhere as well as create and finish goal chances – as well as a useful supporting cast: seven points from play from the corners in the Leinster final.
Galway will be fired up and implacable in terms of contest and work rate. Yet that only gets you to the starting line against Kilkenny and after that the race is to the swiftest.
For all Galway’s impressive strides you wonder would Kilkenny have let Cork and Tipp stay in contention for as long as they did in the quarter- and semi-finals? Galway are dangerous underdogs but underdogs nonetheless.