Smouldering Galway late to catch fire

 

AFTER as dull and disappointing a 50 minutes as any pessimist could have dreaded, the Church & General National Hurling League final caught fire. In the event it was Tipperary who got burned as Galway overcame a four point deficit with six minutes left.

Having struggled to find a rhythm all afternoon, the westerners thrashed 1-3 past a fading Tipperary who were unable to register a single response. Apart from a period of two minutes early in the match, it wasn't until injury time that Galway hit the front.

A long ball from Francis Forde found Liam Burke in the full forward position. Once he had the ball in his hand, Tipperary were bunched. It could as easily have been a goal, but having rounded Paul Shelly, the Galwayman settled for a point. The grace notes were supplied by Joe Rabbitte whose flamboyant surge and strike brought the curtain down on his county's sixth National Hudin League title.

The implications of the afternoon were many and varied. Galway had to win but also needed re assurance. There had been much talk - not least within the county - about the team being the best in the country and about the effectiveness of the new attacking unit. However, for a long time all these assertions looked thin and insubstantial.

In the end, there was salvation of sorts as all six forwards scored from play. Midfield had been a disappointment and the solidity of the defence had been somewhat undermined by the concession of two preventable goals. Yet, it was an admirable victory, and if Galway escaped with both the prize and their dignity, Tipperary felt the full blast of defeat.

The statistics tell the tale. John Leahy scored all their points and more than half their wides. The rest of the attack carried little menace and should future opponents decline to be as generous as Galway, it's hard to see how even Leahy can lift the team. And, if anything were to happen Leahy.

Ye, the defence was impressive, and yes, they had injuries but there remains too much doubt concerning the forward lines for the selectors to feel comfortable on the eve of the Championship. On a more positive note, however, the engagement with Waterford on June 2nd will immediately take their minds off yesterday's disappointment.

Despite a host of rumours buzzing around the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick before the match, there was only one change. Referee Pat Horan of Offaly had to withdraw after a personal bereavement. He was replaced by local official Pat O'Connor.

As expected Liam Cahill and Nicholas English, in the Tipperary full forward line, switched positions before the throw in but that was the extent of the mind games.

The opening 20 minutes were a tedious exposition with only three points to bother the umpires and the official attendance of 25,100. Cathal Moore gave Galway the lead in the fifth minute with Leahy replying in the seventh and 19th.

Galway started into a stiff breeze but, nonetheless, looked sharper and more dangerous than the opposition for a short while. Their big half forwards were thundering into the ball and even if the scores weren't coming, a tight half time situation would have suited them well.

Whatever happened, Galway's initial purposefulness evaporated. Midfield, with Michael Coleman unusually quiet, faded and the forwards began to fumble and stumble with Rabbitte missing a couple of scores and even the defence which had been playing confidently, started to mishit clearances.

Tipperary came into it and monopolised the ball around the central corridor. Colm Bonnar, who hurled splendidly throughout, and his brother Conal took a grip on their half back line and Tipperary had momentum. But they had few scores to show for it until the 22nd minute.

Brendan Carroll got the better of Coleman and dropped a high ball in on the Galway goal. Raymie Ryan made the vital connection and batted to the net.

Leahy added a couple of frees - one from 85 metres - and Tipperary's lead was starting to look ominous even allowing for the wind. Galway's efforts to respond achieved little. Kevin Broderick made too much of a solo and even when the breaking ball ran for Galway, up popped Colm Bonnar to make a cool interception before clearing his lines.

Brendan Keogh managed a 65 on the stroke of half time but five points behind, 0-2 to 1-4, Galway had a lot on their plate.

For a long time, the second half was characterised by tit for tat point scoring with Galway making only limited inroads. This suited Tipperary who were able to keep the opposition at arms length and in the absence of any decisive break from Galway, the three points lead looked sufficient.

But Galway's forwards were beginning to come into it. Moore, Rabbitte and Forde scored from play and a long range ground shot from Liam Burke rattled the woodwork with Brendan Cummins looking unsuitably baffled.

Leahy's frees, however, were keeping Tipperary ahead and it was obvious that if they could keep out goals, they would win. Galway's attack by this stage had been completely re shaped with Rabbitte going full forward and Joe Cooney out to the left.

Moving Rabbitte around has yielded results in the past and did so again yesterday. In the 51st minute, he came in from the left corner and sent the ball across the Tipperary goal. Two defenders missed it and Kevin Broderick - largely contained by the excellent Michael Ryan - was on hand to crack the goal that tied up the match at 1-7 apiece.

Most present would have backed Galway to pull away but again Leahy pointed a free and in the 54th minute, the pendulum swung against the winners. Colm Bonnar thundered out of defence and his long ball looked overhit until Morgan Darcy in the Galway goal let it slip past him.

The sliotar would have run wide had English not been on hand to demonstrate the old dexterity by squeezing it through a tight, tight angle into the net.

Within a minute, Rabbitte's rampaging run through the middle of the Tipperary defence had left Cooney perfectly placed to crash home the ideal riposte and when Forde pointed a free to draw the sides level at 2-8, we all vowed to arrive a little earlier in Limerick next Sunday.

Galway's finale killed the prospect of a replay but opened up more exciting horizons for the months ahead.