Nicky English: Galway confirm status as All-Ireland favourites

Tribesmen’s performance against Wexford proves it will take a lot to beat them this year

Galway’s Joe Canning during the Leinster GAA senior hurling championship final, in Croke Park, Dublin. Photograph: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Galway’s Joe Canning during the Leinster GAA senior hurling championship final, in Croke Park, Dublin. Photograph: Donall Farmer/INPHO

 

For me, Galway firmly restated on Sunday that they are the contenders for this year’s All-Ireland.

For a while, Wexford put it up to them in their Leinster title clash, but even before half-time Galway were getting to grips with them and the outcome looked inevitable.

Galway’s scoring ability, aerial strength, movement and pace all make for a package that is better than anything else we’ve seen in 2017. In winning the Leinster title, they confirmed the impression created by the league final that it will take a lot to beat them.

I’ve been critical in the past of John Hanbury, but he was very strong here and ended up on Lee Chin for a lot of the time, although with modern systems it can sometimes be hard to know how markers end up on players.

Hanbury, Daithí Burke and Adrian Tuohy look a much-improved unit, while Gearóid McInerney is a very solid but very athletic centre-back.

In the middle area, Pádraic Mannion, Aidan Harte, David Burke, Joseph Cooney, who on Sunday had the best game I’ve seen him play for Galway, Johnny Coen and Niall Burke – all of those are athletic, highly skilled and very confident in the air. They dominated in that area and Wexford couldn’t cope.

Conor Cooney also lorded it over Simon Donohoe and the sheer scoring power was too much.

There was an asterisk over Galway because they hadn’t been tested, but from what we’ve seen Wexford are a decent team, at the very least no worse than Kilkenny, and yet they were beaten comfortably.

If you look at the development of Galway, the most obvious thing about them was the reliance on Joe Canning, but he’s now more of a general than a constant go-to forward, and I think he has a calming influence.

The key difference to the team under Micheál Donoghue is that they are relaxed in a way that is unusual for Galway. They’ll be tested more and more, but so far they have been well-adjusted and focused.

There was an individualism about Galway in the past, but that has been reined in for the good of the collective.

Wexford put up a good battle for a while, but this season has been about scoring and their scores weren’t coming from the forwards but from midfield and their defence.

You had Matt O’Hanlon scoring, as well as Willie Devereux, Jack O’Connor and Diarmuid O’Keeffe, who managed to get up in the second-half for the goal.

There were vital incidents before half-time. Conor McDonald missed a free, which made you wonder about Wexford’s free-taking situation.

Lee Chin missed none of the frees in Wexford Park, but McDonald missed a couple before the end, and although this wasn’t costly it should have prompted a re-assessment.

There was also a real issue with the penalty-taking. Goalkeeper Mark Fanning is a good penalty-taker and he was up for taking one in the second-half, but was sent back.

They could have kept going if they had scored that, but by the time the goal did come the gap was too great.

I’d mention Conor Whelan as well. He worked seriously hard and won frees and, although he didn’t score, he’ll do great damage before the summer is out. He’s the epitome of how Galway have improved.

Saturday’s qualifiers didn’t have much effect on the standing of the counties. For anyone looking for a backlash from Kilkenny and Tipperary, there wasn’t much evidence of that.

Tipp won easily enough in the end, but without putting in a strong, scoring performance like Dublin and Waterford.

There was no significant upgrading of Kilkenny’s prospects. They were improved in defence, where Pádraig Walsh put in a strong performance, Paul Murphy looked formidable and Joe Lyng contributed well.

Most encouragingly, Michael Fennelly gave a tour de force in the middle of the field, which was remarkable after the injury problems he’s had.

It was as if he had just stepped out of his display against Waterford in August 2016 and into the middle of 2017 without batting an eyelid.

On the other hand, the form of Richie Hogan continues to be a serious issue for them.

Over the last number of years, it’s been the partnership of him and TJ Reid that’s carried them, but they’re flying on one wing at present because Hogan is well off the pace.

He wasn’t as compromised in his movement as he had been against Wexford, but his confidence is obviously low at the moment.

Other concerns are the weak goal threat - one goal from play in two matches and more misses on Saturday, with the best of the chances again falling to Chris Bolger.

In the context of this season, 20 points won’t be good enough to win many more matches.

Michael Fennelly apart, the rest of them just didn’t get on the ball enough.

Colin Fennelly had a big game in the semi-final and you would have thought that they’d be getting the ball to him at every opportunity, but the service to him was terrible and very unlike Kilkenny.They seemed to be playing very individually.

In a rebuilding phase, they have yet to find real impact among the new forwards, who look interchangeable, or even a pattern of play.

However, they’re still in it and have a chance to improve.

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