Nicky English: Galway no longer looking an unassailable prospect

All-Ireland race looks more open than ever as Cork edge Clare again in Munster final

Galway’s Jonathan Glynn battles in the air against Kilkenny’s Cillian Buckley  during the Leinster final at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Galway’s Jonathan Glynn battles in the air against Kilkenny’s Cillian Buckley during the Leinster final at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Galway had an opportunity at Croke Park to rubber-stamp their credentials as the team to beat in this year’s championship and back-up the undisputed superiority of last year’s victory.

But the performance of the defending All-Ireland champions undermined that argument rather than endorsed it. There were more questions posed than answers revealed.

In a Leinster final that offered a marked contrast in style and content to its Munster sibling, the latter a free-flowing, open, high-scoring contest, the game at Croke Park was a stop-start affair, littered with fouls, and very rarely afforded any rhythm. There was tension that afflicted the players on both sides, in terms of some of the chances not taken and decisions made.

Galway looked to have the better potential before and during the match but it wasn’t until midway through the second half that they managed to shake off the anxiety and lethargy that had dogged the performance. It was edgy and imprecise.

Johnny Glynn’s arrival and subsequent aerial dominance coincided with Galway’s best passage of the game, where they edged ahead and seemed set to pull away. Cathal Mannion was central to that purple patch tagging on a couple of points. Joe Canning got a slight block on Pádraig Walsh – the Kilkenny fullback had an unbelievable game in the aerial duels – and Mannion scored a brilliant point from an acute angle.

But Kilkenny fought to the end and the little mental edge that they have over Galway in Leinster finals was apparent. James Maher was exceptional while TJ Reid’s equalising point from inside his own half was a wonderful score.

Kilkenny showed their mettle in clawing back the deficit on the scoreboard to earn a replay but Galway will be disappointed that they produced a performance that was a pale shadow when weighed against last year’s excellence.

There isn’t any blood in the water from a Galway perspective but their performance will have offered encouragement to the other teams. The energy levels that were a hallmark of last year’s success were conspicuously absent and there has definitely been a little bit of post All-Ireland success syndrome in some of their performances.

It’s been a fitful year so so far, some good wins in the round-robin series in Leinster following on from some poor league form. Overall they are failing to consistently reach the standards they set in winning the All-Ireland.

Kilkenny will feel that if they can improve they have a shot at winning the Leinster final replay while Clare, Cork, Limerick and Wexford will all believe, rightly, that Galway are no longer an unassailable prospect.

Firm grip

Momentum can prove such a galvanising factor in sport and that was very much in evidence in Thurles where Cork were deserving winners in the Munster final.

Taken as two stand-alone periods, Clare were utterly dominant for the vast majority of the first half while Cork, once they got back to parity shortly after half-time, accelerated away and while a late goal made it a one-score game, it ultimately came too late to save Clare.

It was a game they dominated for the majority of the opening half and one they appeared to have firm grip of when Peter Duggan struck for a goal, and John Conlon, who had terrorised the Cork defence in the first half, tagged on a point to push Clare out to an eight-point lead after 33-minutes. What happened between then and the referee’s half-time whistle transformed the contest.

Cork’s Séamus Harnedy, who would have a huge influence on the game in the second half, placed Luke Meade for a goal and seconds later, Mark Coleman’s superb sideline cut sailed over the Clare crossbar, cutting the Banner’s lead from eight points to four, redefining the match as the teams headed for the dressing-rooms.

Four points didn’t reflect Clare’s superiority in those 35 minutes, their backs sharper and Conlon unplayable no matter what Cork player was handed the task. Clare were forcing mistakes and fouls and Peter Duggan kept the scoreboard ticking over while also contributing a goal. Cork’s pre-interval mini-revival was important but more so the manner in which they started the second half.

The quickly made up the deficit and then forged ahead with Patrick Horgan and Harnedy in particular, when he moved into the full forward line, causing huge problems for the Clare defence. It was fitting that Harnedy should grab Cork’s second goal. Conlon and Duggan, outstanding in that first half for Clare, faded from view.

The assertion that there is very little between the teams was borne out by the match. Cork’s superiority in the second half saw them retain their Munster crown but if the teams meet again there is likely to be very little between them.

They’ll both take plenty from the match, things that worked and areas of improvement but for now the most tangible asset is that Cork retained their title and the All-Ireland race looks more open than ever.

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