A FEW months ago in Galway the Hurling Disciplinary Committee met to decide the fate of Eugene Cloonan. The reported incident happened in a club game and by all accounts it warranted more than the mandatory two-week suspension, but this was Galway's best scoring forward last year and with the League title still in question the temptation was there to show mercy. No mercy was shown and the Athenry man was treated like any other player. Little did the Committee know at that time, but the stance they took that night could greatly benefit Galway hurling today.
After Cloonan's suspension Galway still had to play the latter stages of the League and, in his absence, the Tribesmen needed somebody else to supply the scores and these players appeared. Ollie Canning, Ollie Fahy and Fergal Healy scored a combined 2-9 from play when Galway beat Waterford in the League semi-final and the same trio scored 2-7 from play two weeks later against Tipperary in the final.
In the absence of Cloonan, Galway's inside forwards seem to express themselves better and take on more than they did in the past. They are now more confident, more positive and surely better players.
With Galway people quite content with their success in the League and even happier still with the team's performance, the pressure was on Cloonan to get his place back. For the first time in his career with either club or county, Eugene Cloonan did not know whether he would start or not in Galway's next game. He had to fight for his hurling life to receive a Galway jersey with the number lower than 16.
He did, and by all reports Eugene has trained harder this year than he ever did before. One of the first men on the field every evening, he often did an extra bit when the others were gone home and he chased corner-backs like a wild dog chasing cars. Cloonan was focused and committed and this extra effort has won him his place back, and if he commits himself as forcefully today on the field then he will be a huge asset to the Galway side that won the League without him.
GALWAY has some class players on their sideline. Kevin Broderick and David Tierney are two of these. Broderick had a slight slump in form recently but that seems to be changing, while a lack of experience probably cost Tierney his starting place. Tierney is a very versatile player who will put pressure on others to perform, and I am pretty sure we will see him introduced at some stage.
Galway have conceded an average of 2-16 in their last four big games, the two games with Clare last year and this year's League semi-final and final, yet they only lost one of these games, but conceding an average of 2-16 is far too great and is putting extra pressure on your forward line.
If Galway are to win today it's the defence that must show the greater improvement. Cathal Moore is a vital man for Galway. He must play solidly and it must be done for 70 minutes. If Moore has a failing it is his great half, poor half syndrome. Two good halves would be a better contribution for the Tribesmen.
Matty Murphy and company have stuck with the same full-back line as won the League final even though they looked porous at times that day. Vinnie Maher is the man under most pressure and the Galway sideline must not allow Tommy Dunne to mark Maher. Liam Hodgins should be employed to take up Tipperary's ace marksman and even follow him if he adopts the full-forward role.
Tipperary have got to put the defeat of the Munster final behind them. They are getting a second chance but failure again today and there's no more chances. English will want the Championship to continue a lot further. Tipperary have improved with every game since the League final against Galway. Sluggish against Waterford, forceful against Clare and unlucky against Cork, that's how their performances have gone to date.
Tommy Dunne's heroic efforts in the dying minutes of the Munster final have forced the selectors to move him closer to goal and that is really the only big change. Eddie Enright is preferred to Declan Ryan on the 40. Enright had a good game against Brian Corcoran and he will probably be instructed to keep Cathal Moore on the move and leave the centre of the Galway defence wide open.
PAUL SHELLEY caused a lot of problems for the newly-wed Brian Feeney in the League final, but Feeney shouldn't be as tired today and their tussle, as any tussle Shelly ever has, should be a tough one.
Brian O'Meara has found his scoring touch this year and the blue and gold will be hoping that that continues this afternoon. But Eugene O'Neill could be the biggest threat of all to Galway. This year O'Neill is getting better and better and sooner rather than later he is going to hit the Man of the Match spot. With all eyes on Dunne, O'Neill could be the one to steal the show.
John Leahy is now partnered in the midfield with another Michael Ryan. Leahy was quiet in the Munster final and he will dearly want to rectify that. Galway will probably put Finbar Gantley on the Mullinahone man. Gantley will chase him all day long and this could be one of the deciding clashes of the game for a rampant John Leahy will lift Tipperary, but without him they are a bit leaderless.
The Tipp defence are not yet fully sorted out. Okay, David Kennedy and Phil Maher are their best central defenders, but I would prefer to see a bit more of Paul Ormonde playing in the half-back line before he is confined to a corner for the rest of his days.
The only worry I have about the full-back line is Michael Ryan's apparent lack of pace. He looked in trouble the last day against Seánie McGrath, and while Cork scored no goal against Tipp, Galway, given the same freedom and space, may not be as lenient.
In the League final Eamon Corcoran had a tough tussle with Joe Rabbitte. Michael Crimmins pucked every ball down on top of Rabbitte and Corcoran. Rabbitte won the majority of the aerial tussles. John Leahy was pulled deeper to try and pick up some of the breaking ball and Corcoran must meet the ball in the air every time. He shouldn't even think about competing with Rabbitte to catch the dropping sliotar. At six foot four and 16 stone, Rabbitte is too forceful.
Both sides desperately need a victory in Croke Park. Galway are invited to the ball every year but rarely get inside the door. This year they appear more at ease than in the past. Even Matt Murphy is acting more casual than before. They have good forwards and they have plenty of talent to introduce. Even the great Joe Cooney will be an option on the subs bench.
The Tribesmen have lost only two games in two years and they sport an impressive 12-game unbeaten run at the moment, but the lack of Championship hurling will be the biggest hindrance today.
THE big question is can Galway hit Croke Park after two months of an absence and compete with Tipperary who are now quite used to Championship pace? The Premier have learned more than Galway have in the last two months. They are now 80 percent along the road to finding their best 15 players. Maher and Kenedy need to open their shoulders in defence and the three Os O'Neill, O'Meara and O'Leary must continue their Millennium progress. Leahy and Dunne are still the two biggest threats to Galway as potential match-winners.
It's a hard one to call, but I thought Galway looked very sharp in the League final. They have trained extremely hard since and with all places up for grabs the competition was immense. Eugene Cloonan is a big boost provided the others don't leave the load of the work on his plate again. Moore and Rabbitte are the Galway players whose performances are vital to their cause.
The last time these two met in Croke Park was in 1993. Tipperary were then Munster champions, and Babs Keating was still in charge. Galway won that day, and I feel they can repeat the result today.