Jackie Tyrrell: Kilkenny and Galway are now worlds apart after revealing weekend

Cats will be beaming with confidence while Galway need to turn things around fast

Dublin’s Conor Burke and Paddy Smyth celebrate at the final whistle after beating Galway. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Dublin’s Conor Burke and Paddy Smyth celebrate at the final whistle after beating Galway. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

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It’s always amazing how one weekend of games can change so much. This day last week, I had Kilkenny and Galway down as being two pretty similar teams. I’d say most people were the same. Probably Galway a bit further up the pecking order but not by much.

Similar make-up, similar talent level throughout the squad, similar potential. Both Leinster finalists last year and the majority of people would have been expecting a repeat of that final match-up this time around. But now, after last weekend, they exist on two completely different planets. And I have been in both.

One team is stuck now with their heads full of questions with no obvious answers. They are full of what-ifs, uncertainty and doubts. That state of mind will form the basis of the starting point of everything they do this week. They are on the back foot immediately, as if they’re staring at a Leaving Cert paper where they can do five of seven questions – the other two they won’t even attempt. Those will be for later when they have their confidence back.

For the other team, this is a week where every player has grown an inch taller. They will be filled with confidence, they will be glowing. They will be going around with a bounce in their step and that bounce will only get higher as the week goes on and the bodies recover after such a titanic battle.

So why did Galway fall flat on their face and Kilkenny get over the line? Going into the weekend, we all thought Galway would beat Dublin. We knew Kilkenny v Wexford was always going to be a tight one – maybe not extra-time tight but we knew there wouldn’t be much in it.

Let’s start with them. Kilkenny had a lovely mix of something new and fresh, blended with the old values of a Brain Cody Kilkenny team. Firstly, the new. I have never seen a Kilkenny team conceding the puck-out to an opposition and retreating beyond the opposition’s 45. For the first 20 minutes of the game, Mark Fanning kept flicking out the ball to Kevin Foley, the Wexford sweeper, while the Kilkenny forward line all fell back.

Big tactic

Dropping that deep from the opposition has never been a Kilkenny thing. The closest to it at times would have been to retreat maybe about 30 yards from goal and to let someone in the opposition full-back line receive the puck-out before pouncing on him but this was a different level. This was basically giving the ball to Foley and leaving it up to him what to do with it.

It happened at two different stages in the game. It was their big tactic for the first quarter of the game but it didn’t work. Foley’s distribution was good and Wexford pieced together possession pretty well. They ran the ball into good areas and they were able to free up their shooters, especially Lee Chin and Rory O’Connor. At the first water break, Wexford led 0-8 to 0-6.

Kilkenny Manager Brian Cody reacts during their match against Dublin in the Leinster semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Kilkenny Manager Brian Cody reacts during their match against Dublin in the Leinster semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

But by then, Cody was already making moves to put a halt to it. About two minutes before the water break, you could see him summoning Adrian Mullen over towards him on the sideline. The message was clear – Mullen went back out on to the pitch making pushing hand gestures to the rest of the forward line. Push up, lads.

And if they didn’t get the message then, they definitely had it by the time the water break was over. For Fanning’s first puck-out after it, Kilkenny were back to their more familiar setup and Wexford hit their first long puck-out of the day.

Just because something doesn’t work doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea. I liked seeing them try something new, even if it didn’t come off. They were forced to do it again in extra-time during Eoin Murphy’s sin-binning when they were down to 14 men and this time it actually worked pretty well.

Partly this was down to the fact that Wexford were visibly tiring. But also, Kilkenny didn’t just retreat this time, they packed the middle channel as well. Combine that with Wexford’s exhaustion and it shut down all the running alleys that had existed before. It meant that Chin and O’Connor weren’t getting the same quality of ball and the Wexford moves were breaking down a lot earlier. Kilkenny had learned on their feet and showed their versatility.

The other small thing we saw from Cody that he usually doesn’t really bother with was a dummy team. I’ve seen it happen before, maybe for an All-Ireland semi-final replay six days after a drawn game, where the team has to go to the printers early in the week and nobody expects either team to line out as named anyway because everything is done in such a rush. But for the first game of the year? I doubt if Kilkenny have ever named a team and then made three changes to it by throw-in time.

Even the late announcement of the team was very unKilkenny. My phone beeped at 9.31pm on Friday night with a text from the Kilkenny Supporters’ Club, naming the team for a game that was happening less than 24 hours later. Again, it’s not like them – the team was given to the players at training on Thursday night.

Small little changes like that might not amount to very much. Dummy teams are hardly anything new in the game, neither is waiting until late the night before a game to release it to the public. But if Cody is deciding after all this time not to show his hand before he has to, I think that’s an interesting development.

On the pitch, it looks like TJ Reid will spend more time inside than outside, keeping him closer to goal. Maybe there is a changing of the guard also. Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly are no longer there. Cillian Buckley, Joey Holden, Conor Fogarty, Walter Walsh and Richie Hogan are not starting. Has Brian moved to a younger team, favouring the links of Richie Leahy, Tommy Walsh, Alan Murphy and Darragh Corcoran? It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Saying that, there is still plenty of the old Kilkenny on show too. It was never summed up better than by Cody after the match when he said, “The turning point was the sheer refusal of our players to lie down or to stop and to never say the game was gone and to keep fighting and fighting and fighting.” That is the given with Brian and Kilkenny.

You can guarantee that will be there for the next day, as much as you can guarantee Brian will be wearing a black and amber face mask. He is his own man, but he doesn’t flinch one bit in demanding that effort, drive and fire every day you go out.

He does not give you the choice between working really hard and going through the motions. That is not up for debate or question. Of course, Brian always emphasises the importance of the bench and panel, and this was evident on Sunday. He doesn’t hang around either, as we saw with changes at half-time.

All in all, Kilkenny got 1-9 from his subs, which was a huge impact. Walter Walsh was the key man off the bench, not just with 1-1 scored but also his work rate, positioning and turnovers at key times.

As always – although it is never really spoken about – Kilkenny were a well-conditioned team and had the better fitness levels and freshness. A lot of key Wexford guys flagged in extra time and some had to come off, like Chin due to cramp.

All in all, it’s not the same old Kilkenny. The changes might only be small but they’re built on an old template that has worked in the past. I think it sets them up in a really good place.

As for Galway, they were lacklustre and unfocused. They took Dublin for granted and they did not play with the required level of work rate, application and attitude. For that they got burnt alive by a hungrier Dublin team who sized them up and cut them down.

Errors

This had a stench of Galway of old from them; pre-2017 Galway. I hope it is just a blip, because there is no doubt they have the panel and players to win this year’s All-Ireland. But serious questions need to be asked within that group.

It is not acceptable to pick and choose when you prepare properly for a game. I have no problem with mistakes or errors but I have no time for lack of effort. Galway went through the motions – how did they think that was going to get it done?

When Conor Whelan got the goal in the 43rd minute and reduced the margin to a point, the Galway we all thought we knew should have found a way to see out that game. That’s what good teams do: recognise they are below par but still sense with a push of one or two big players, this can be turned around. All it would have taken was a couple of leaders to show the way and others would follow.

But other than Whelan, nobody else came forward. That is a sure sign that complacency had eaten them from the inside out at this stage. Too many players assumed that they would figure it out, or that the game would come to them. There’s a fine line between not panicking and not showing enough urgency to turn things around and when you are complacent, you fall the wrong side of that line.

I have seen this before from Galway. They have it in their locker. But they also have men of substance who need to stand up this week. Daithí Burke, Joe Canning, Gearóid McInerney, Whelan, the Mannions – they’re men of principle and I expect them to get things going this week.

Some harsh words. Eye-to-eye stuff. Players-only meetings, whatever it takes. The job is to get to the bottom of why they were so casual last weekend. They haven’t much time to turn the ship but the good news is that their problem isn’t tactical. Maybe the odd positional or personnel change here and there but really it’s an attitude change they need and you can turn that around in the space of one session.

I expect a reaction from Galway. They have too much about them to go out like this.

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