Significance of Galway’s comeback will be apparent only after the replay

Kilkenny broke unwelcome new ground by losing a big lead but have their opponents a convincing second act?

One of the chief characteristics of hurling is the manner in which it can take relatively small differentials on the field and turn them into substantial margins on the scoreboard.

On one level this is demoralising; on another it can help teams put indignity behind them, rationalising the sort of defeat that the Cavan sage PJ Carroll used to describe as "a notorious hammering" into sporting versions of the Just-A-Minute Quiz – questions that didn't suit you on a given day.

It’s presumably what has given teams the strength to face Kilkenny in the past decade or so. A bad beating didn’t reflect what you were capable of and if things could be got right on the day, you’d never know what might happen.

Even this very provisional bravado could be difficult to whistle if anyone investigated the cold statistics. During their pomp Kilkenny hurlers lost just one match in nearly seven years, from the defeat by Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final on 25th August 2005 to the Leinster final on 8th July 2012 against the same opponents.


Even that out-of-the-blue mortar attack was ultimately avenged in the All-Ireland final replay 12 weeks later when Galway were handed their own notorious hammering to place amongst an extensive collection.

It’s no coincidence that any assessment of Kilkenny during the years in question must keep hearing Galway-based evidence. Of all the counties who have engaged with Brian Cody’s teams over the years Galway have been the most menacing.

Better record

Cork may have a better record against Kilkenny during that period but that’s largely to do with the ebb and flow of the teams’ fortunes. From Cody’s perspective – although I wouldn’t care to be framing the question for him quite like this – Galway are the scariest opponents simply because as half the crowd on Sunday seemed to be saying, no-one really knows what to expect.

So there we all were last Sunday in Tullamore, like so many Donald Rumsfelds, uncertain as to what familiar process we were about to witness; yet in the end it was none of the known unknowns that erupted in O'Connor Park.

There was no Galway tearing away through an avalanche of goals, taking a tight grip on the game or setting Kilkenny an impossible target. This was a nip-and-tuck match until the final quarter.

What happened next was all too familiar from a Galway perspective; in their previous four defeats in the fixture they have got into the second half and often up until around the final quarter still more or less in contention but on each occasion Kilkenny have put the foot down and motored into the distance, leaving the match dead as a contest.

The statistics are stark. In the last 10 minutes of the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final, by which stage the teams were level, Kilkenny scored 2-4 without reply. Two years later in Galway’s first season in the Leinster championship they put up a good early display to exert real pressure on the champions but between the 45th and 67th minutes they were outscored 0-10 to nil – a huge factor in a match lost by just four points.

In the 2010 Leinster final a similar pattern emerged with Kilkenny hitting seven points without reply in the third quarter and winning by the same margin.

Two years later in the All-Ireland final replay after two previous fixtures that season had seen Galway win one and draw one, Kilkenny took off between the 49th and 64th minutes to shoot 2-7 and concede just one point on the way to an 11-point win.

Huge comeback

Last Sunday the damage came at around the same time. Between the 54th and 63rd minutes Kilkenny amassed 1-8 to no score, turning a one-point deficit into a 10-point lead.

If this was familiar, what happened next most was not. Instead of hobbling to the finishing line irreparably broken, Galway, for the first time in a championship match against Cody’s Kilkenny, mounted a huge comeback that included three goals and induced the rare sight of their opponents seriously on the run, as a big lead evaporated.

For all of the excitement the significance of the match will be apparent only after the replay.

Nonetheless after a season that so far has supported a narrative that Kilkenny have been back on track, sharper, hungrier and fully fit – this was an anxious weekend for them. The spectre of injury reappeared on Friday night with Michael Fennelly's back spasm and again in Tullamore with the knee injury to Richie Power.

They then broke new ground by surrendering a monumental lead and for a second successive year face a Leinster championship replay, having lost last year’s against Dublin in another unwelcome departure.

What’s going for them is that at their best they played with a structure, pace and purpose largely lacking last year. For Galway though the predicament is familiar.

There's a yarn – preferably not apocryphal – that 50 years ago at the Chichester festival Laurence Olivier stormed off stage having electrified the audience as Othello. Asked why he was so irascible after such a towering performance, he's supposed to have replied: "I know I was brilliant. It's just that I don't know how I managed to do it."