Galway provide day of reckoning for Kilkenny in Salthill
Leinster hurling arrives on the Atlantic promenade as champions bare their teeth
Galway’s Cathal Mannion, Conor Whelan and Brian Concannon in action against James Maher of Kilkenny. Photograph: Oisín Keniry
Galway 1-22 Kilkenny 2-11
It used to be that on fine days, Salthill was hellish only for its traffic. On this evidence it is set to become quite the ordeal for visiting hurling teams also. Just like that, the big pitch along the Atlantic promenade has become the toughest hurling venue in the province of Leinster.
In the 73rd minute of this game, long after the contest had been settled, the Kilkenny defence managed to clear the ball through a furious onslaught of Galway pressure only to see Niall Burke, not long on the pitch, collect it around the 65 and efficiently fire it between Eoin Murphy’s posts. It was Galway’s eighth consecutive score, ending a blizzard of attacking play that had started in the 58th minutes.
On the visiting sideline, Brian Cody would have recognised the characteristics of that score: the collective willingness to make superiority count. Over the previous two decades, he had drafted the blueprint. This was the first time Cody had faced Galway as All-Ireland champions.
Deep down, he must have known that this day was always coming, somewhere, sometime. It is a testimony to the survival-instinct hardwired into Cody hurling teams that had a 65th-minute goal for Walter Walsh not been disallowed, Kilkenny would have been just three points behind. In the hazy afternoon, it never felt like that sort of match.
When it mattered, the All-Ireland champions were merciless here. Galway were unceasing in their work-rate, hugely physical, greedy for scores and eager, perhaps, to at least begin to atone for the many, many summers when those black and amber colours left them feeling haunted and miserable.
Walter Walsh, one of the few Kilkenny players with the physical prowess to thrive in the exchanges, manufactured a late goal for Kilkenny but it did little to disguise just how completely the nature of this rivalry has flipped.
Perhaps the weirdest statistic of the day was that Walsh’s goal gave Kilkenny just their third score from play all day. TJ Reid’s prodigious returns from placed ball – including a first-half penalty contributed 1-9. A first-half point from Walsh and another from the lively Luke Scanlon accounted for Kilkenny’s total: just three scorers in total.
Galway had seven; Conor Whelan didn’t score but still caused serious trouble for Kilkenny’s full-back line on an afternoon when the home team had clearly decided that goals should be on the menu.
With the first puck out, Galway unveiled a strategy that was as audacious as it was direct. James Skehill delivered monstrous ball from his goal-mouth down towards Eoin Murphy. It was a direct challenge to the Kilkenny full-back line and although Enda Morrissey made a spectacular early catch and Paul Murphy and Cillian Buckley were busy tidying up their sector, the deluge was relentless.
It didn’t always works but when Whelan worked a penalty off a direct ball from David Burke which Canning converted with little fuss, Kilkenny suddenly looked in a precarious place, trailing 1-8 to 0-4 and unable to get near the ball as Galway moved the ball across field for Cathal Mannion to smoothly strike his first point.
When, seconds later, Whelan, full of turbo-charged mischief, suddenly honed in on a skied ball from Brian Concannon and rapped a goal chance against the side netting, the Nowlan Park cognoscenti must have feared that a day of reckoning was coming.
Kilkenny, to their credit, found it within them to produce 1-1 before heading to the cool of their dressingroom. Their 34th-minute penalty betrayed as much about Galway’s mindset than anything else in the half. With the front six starved of ball, Walter Walsh had been pushed out to left half forward and managed to snag a ball through a torrent of maroon, immediately sending Scanlon on his travels.
The James Stephens man raced towards the Galway posts, goal on his mind. Daithí Burke lined him up and simply levelled him by stepping across his path; Gearóid McInerney met him at the same time. It was tough and uncompromising and earned both maroon defenders a yellow card. TJ Reid whipped the penalty home and Walsh managed an excellent point before the break. But the message – that Galway will not be giving up pretty goals easily – was fairly clear.
Galway had five yellow cards over the day and most of the frees they coughed up were for on-the-edge tackling. In the second half they were stingy about giving the Kilkenny forwards as much as a free look at Skehill’s posts: Colin Fennelly fired Kilkenny’s lone second-half wide as the visitors depended heavily on Walter Walsh and Reid to win both primary possession and provide some kind of guidance through the hectic middle sector. They stuck with it without ever threatening to maintain their remarkable championship hold on Galway.
There was much for the local crowd to enjoy: the unyielding hardness of their full-back line; three sweet points in succession from Conor Cooney; a terrific joust between Whelan and Pádraig Walsh and a stunning late point from Canning. But mostly, the pleasure was in just sensing the re-assurance and authority radiating from their team: after so many years of watching Galway teams come undone against Kilkenny teams, this day was a kind of balm.
For all that, the All-Ireland champions only played in patches, rushed their play occasionally and took on a couple of wildly ambitious point attempts. In their keenness to establish the new order, they handed Kilkenny points from frees that were like oxygen to the young team.
It is only May and Galway are nowhere near full-stride. If and when they achieve that state, they will be some sight. This is their first championship victory over the Cats since 2012. Odds are the next won’t be so long in coming.
GALWAY: 1 J Skehill; 2 A Tuohy, 3 D Burke (0-1), 7 A Harte; 5 P Mannion, 6 G McInerney, 4 J Hanbury; 8 J Coen, 9 B Burke (0-1); 10 C Mannion (0-2), J Canning (1-12, 1-0 pen, one 65 , seven frees), 12 J Cooney; 13 C Whelan, 14 C Cooney (0-4), 15 B Concannon (0-1).
Substitutes: 25 J Flynn for 12 J Cooney (61 mins), 22 N Burke (0-1) for 10 C Mannion (67), 18 S Loftus for 11 J Canning, 17 P Killeen for 5 P Mannion (both 70).
KILKENNY: 1 E Murphy; 2 E Morrissey, 3 P Walsh, 4 P Deegan; 5 C Delaney, 6 C Buckley, 7 P Murphy; 8 C Fogarty, 9 J Maher; 10 M Heoghan, 11 TJ Reid (1-9, 1-0 pen, one 65, eight frees), 14 W Walsh (1-1), 13 J Donnelly, 12 L Blanchfield, 15 L Scanlon (0-1).
Substitutes: 22 C Fennelly for 13 J Donnelly (half-time), 17 J Holden for 2 E Morrissey (45 mins), 24 R Leahy for 10 M Keoghan (55), 26 B Sheehan for 12 L Blanchfield (58 mins).