Shoe on the other foot as Kilkenny challenge Galway’s status
For the first time in Cody’s reign, Cats seeking to make a statement against Galway
Galway’s Conor Whelan battles with Kilkenny’s Pádraig Walsh at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Maybe it is only now that the Galway hurling clans will feel as if they belong. Their inclusion in the Leinster championship has worked and the sight of the Cats’ team bus inching along the promenade in Salthill on Sunday will feel like a significant moment.
After decades of searching to find a settled home within the game, it feels as if the game itself is at last paying a visit to them. Pearse Stadium has hosted no championship hurling game since 2011 when Galway defeated Clare in a qualifier and that occasion was a rarity.
That Galway are All-Ireland champions for Sunday’s visit of Kilkenny makes this game hugely intriguing. The locals will turn out in force. But what exactly will they be going to see?
What, precisely, is Galway v Kilkenny now?
In the most immediate sense, Kilkenny, the league champions, are going to play a Galway team that failed to gain promotion from Division 1B. In the starkest sense, the established roles have been reversed, it pits the All-Ireland champions against a Kilkenny team that failed to reach last summer’s Leinster final.
And in the general sense, there is the memory of a keen rivalry between these two that has smouldered throughout the Brian Cody era. Since 2005, when the counties played out a riveting scorched-earth semi-final in Croke Park, a succession of Galway hurling teams found their summers defined by what they could and couldn’t do against Kilkenny.
“We always built ourselves up,” says Tony Óg Regan, the long-serving defender who was All-Star nominated after a series of eye-catching performances as a central defender in the 2005 season: he wore No 3 and played at No 6 against Kilkenny that day.
“It was going to go one way or the other with Kilkenny. You were either going to blast off against them and play to the highest peak of your powers and we knew we had 15 to 20 individuals who were capable of matching them on a given day. And then we also knew that if we didn’t get everyone to that mindset on the day that Kilkenny were capable of beating us by 15 or 20 points.
“I think Kilkenny always just sharpened the mind; you had to be so right for them or you were going to be in for a nightmare of an afternoon if it wasn’t going to plan. If it was going to plan, they were magical occasions to be part of because Kilkenny will test you every single way possible to get the victory – and probably brought the best out of our lads at times. You were just getting the height of a challenge you could get on a sports field in Ireland at that time and it was just a privilege to be part of that for a decade.”
There is no question that Galway teams were among the collateral damage caused by Kilkenny’s indomitable brand of tough-minded excellence from 2006-2010.
After that 2005 loss, a perplexed Brian Cody wondered why it was that Galway “reserve those special days for us and then don’t repeat it the next time”.
Incendiary against Kilkenny in 2001 and 2005, Galway then fell short in the subsequent All-Ireland finals, losing title games they might have won. What they became for Kilkenny in those years was a reliable barometer of where Kilkenny were at.
Under Ger Loughnane in 2006 and 2007; under John McIntyre in 2010, under Anthony Cunningham in 2012 and 2015, Galway could be relied upon to whip themselves into a tornado of intent whenever they met the Cats. Since 2005, they have met 12 times in the All-Ireland championship, including replays. Galway’s lone victory came in the 2-21 to 2-11 Leinster final victory in 2012, a game in which the maroon team played spellbinding hurling.
That game and the thrilling draws in the 2012 All-Ireland final and 2014 Leinster semi-final must surely have solidified Cody’s sense that Galway were a unique challenge in that the games between the two counties were often without rhyme or reason.
It is easy to look back on Kilkenny’s 2006-2010 run, when they fell short of a five-in-a-row in the 2010 final, as a mountainous bulk of excellence. But when it was happening, the Galway teams who met the Cats in ’06 (2-22 to 3-14), ’08 (1-19 to 1-12), 2009 (2-20 to 3-13) and ’10 (1-19 to 1-12) went into each of those games possessed with the idea that they could take Kilkenny down. It is only in retrospect, though, that players like Regan can appreciate the disadvantages they faced at the time.
“When I reflect back on it, they had so many class players throughout the team: they had Eoin Larkin, Michael Fennelly, Henry Shefflin, JJ [Delaney], Tommy Walsh: hurler of the year type players. I don’t think we produced near as good a player in some of the positions they had. And I think from 6-11 we weren’t next nor near to the level they were at then. We played them in 2006 in a quarter-final and they were 10 or 12 up on us at half time. We got it back to four points or so but they had taken the foot off the pedal.
“Ger Loughnane came in then and we ran them close in one game but it still ended up in 10 points. So that is too big a gap to be claiming you are an All-Ireland contender. I think structurally they were miles ahead at the time. Brian Cody was consistently there. They had a consistent training regime and strength and conditioning and, I’d say, coaching, whereas we were chopping and changing every two years.
“Every time that happened there would be a 12-14 player transition within the panel whereas Kilkenny had nearly the same 20 lads over that period of five years. And they turned into an awesome team. Cork challenged a bit and Tipp came along in ’09 to challenge it. But I don’t think we were knocking on the door in that period.”
Regan was one of the many Galway players whose potential and development was interrupted by the abrupt shifts in management and focus over that decade; he went from starting centre-back in the 2012 All-Ireland final to not featuring on the panel at all the following autumn even though he felt as if he was in the prime of his hurling life.
That severance indirectly led to a career switch from accountancy to sports psychology. He was part of the backroom staff in the Tipperary dressing room that won the 2016 All-Ireland after a pivotal one-point semi-final win over Galway and remains in that role this summer. Galway and Tipp’ have shared the last two All-Irelands and the narrowest of margins separated them at the semi-final stage in both years.
“In fairness, I think the real change has been since Micheál [Donoghue] took over,” he says of his former team. “They are very consistent and play for 70 minutes and he has really changed the mentality and the style of play and the go-to process within the senior squad.”
The ironic thing is that when Galway won their first MacCarthy cup since 1988 last September, they did so without beating Kilkenny.
“After 30 years now, the players and public down here didn’t care how it was won,” Regan says. “Would it have added anything to beat Kilkenny along the way? I don’t know.”
Galway “will be spoken of and thought of in the Kilkenny camp this week with contempt”
What is certain is that on Sunday, Galway will play with the authority that comes with having won a championship. What is unknown is the degree to which Kilkenny, having last faced the maroon in a fairly routine 1-26 to 0-22 Leinster final win in 2016, will acknowledge that status shift to themselves, let alone the world.
In his column in Friday’s edition of the Irish Times, Jackie Tyrrell outlined the probable Noreside mindset in blunt terms: ‘Galway didn’t beat Kilkenny last year but they are still the All-Ireland champions. They took over and dominated the hurling world. Kilkenny can’t allow that to stand.’
It was an illuminating depiction of Kilkenny’s necessarily egocentric view of the world; that another county winning the All-Ireland is, somehow, a wrong that needs to be avenged and is why Galway “will be spoken of and thought of in the Kilkenny camp this week with contempt”.
That’s why this game in Salthill resides somewhere above and beyond the round-robin Leinster system in significance. For the first time since Brian Cody took charge, Kilkenny are the team seeking to make a statement against Galway. Expect the usual fireworks and 70 minutes of hurling that will be a law unto themselves.