Cyril Farrell: Potent Kilkenny to prey on Galway's mental fragilities
A year ago this weekend came confirmation that all wasn't quite right with the Kilkenny engine. It had spluttered against Offaly a fortnight earlier but because of the remarkable championship record over such a long period, the misfire was put down to dirty petrol.
Normal service was expected to be resumed against Dublin in the Leinster semi-final. It wasn't. A draw and a defeat left Kilkenny heading for the All-Ireland qualifiers and while they kept on track for two more laps, they crashed out against Cork in the quarter-final.
A year on, Kilkenny are again in the Leinster semi-final and this time things are different. They have been much better right through this year than they were last season.
They won the Allianz League in both years but there was more about them this year, imposing a control and a sense of order to their game that left nobody in any doubt that despite the experiments being carried out in various sectors, the main frame was rock solid.
There's a tendency to dismiss their trimming of Offaly at Nowlan Park as more of a sad reflection on the visitors than a sign that Kilkenny were back on full awesome power, but that could be a mistake.
After all, Kilkenny's wobble against Offaly last year – they conceded four goals – threw out a hint that they weren't quite right. We all tended to ignore that, so now that they look to be back to their powerful best, we shouldn't ignore that evidence either. Even allowing for Offaly's weaknesses, Kilkenny were extremely efficient a fortnight ago, mercilessly steamrolling the visitors when the chances arose.
Pádraig Walsh has developed into the player we all knew he would; Cillian Buckley and Walter Walsh are realising the potential they revealed a few seasons ago, while most of Kilkenny's so-called older guard couldn't be hurling with any more determination if they were still trying to win their first All-Ireland medal.
The scramble for places, especially in attack, is frenzied and with so many options Brian Cody can carry out repair work at any time, secure in the knowledge that he's bringing in proven campaigners.
So then, it's all set up for a Kilkenny win tomorrow? Yes, just as it was in the 2001 and 2005 All-Ireland semi-finals and the 2012 Leinster final. Enter Galway, the High Kings of Unpredictability, whose capacity to upset the odds when least expected has long been a characteristic which no one can explain.
They have the best record of all the opposition against Kilkenny in the Cody era and while still losing more often than they won, they know that on a given day they can pull a surprise result. That has almost always been based on a good start, so the first 20 minutes will be crucial tomorrow.
If Kilkenny are ahead and settled into a rhythm at that stage then it's hard to see Galway recovering but if Galway have set the tempo, got their game going and raised confidence levels, it will be a very interesting day.
That all points to a fiercely intense opening, which really is crucial to both sides, more so to Galway in terms of getting them into the game but important for Kilkenny too in order to apply further pressure on their opponents' fragile disposition after going so long without producing a really good championship performance.
Galway never sparkled against Laois, Dublin or Clare last year, while they had to rely on a lot of luck to survive against Laois three weeks ago. That's not exactly conducive to raising self-belief levels. Despite that, Galway still have a lot of technically excellent players but haven't matched it with the hard mental resolve required to stabilise them when the gale against them is at its highest.
That's one of Galway's biggest problems. A team needs to be able to keep the damage to a minimum during the bad spells so that when the upturn comes, they aren't too far behind.
As ever, Galway will be looking to Joe Canning for inspiration which, of course, he's well capable of providing if he gets in the groove. It wouldn't surprise me to see him trying it from centre-forward.
Galway did well enough twice against Kilkenny in this year's league but still ended up losing by three and four points respectively. It could be in the same range tomorrow. What Galway can't afford to happen is to lose by a sizeable margin as that would further undermine their confidence, heading into what will be very tough qualifiers.
Kilkenny to win, but Galway to do well enough to provide encouragement for the opening of the back door.
Barry-Murphy has impressive Cork moving along nicely... what's more, best could be yet to come
Clare and Tipperary started the Munster championship as favourites to reach the final, yet neither are there. Instead, it will be a rerun of last year when Limerick made full use of the extra man in the second half to beat Cork.
Cork really were excellent last Sunday, hurling with all the county's trademark cuteness and instinct to out-gun Clare. It was all about touch and timing, pace and precision for Cork and it has to be said after three games, that they look well advanced on last year. Granted, Clare will know that both of the goals scored by Patrick Horgan should have been blocked, but they weren't. And even if they were, it's very possible that Cork would have won anyway as they held key advantages all over the pitch. Clare just couldn't get in among them as they did in last year's All-Ireland final (draw and replay) and the more they tried unsuccessfully, the more frustrated they became. Still, it's only one defeat for Clare, same as last year when they also lost to Cork in Munster. They remounted, galloped on and ended up as All-Ireland champions.
The draw for the qualifiers will be very important. Clare can draw Wexford, Offaly, Laois or Antrim, Galway or Kilkenny in the first round. No more than Tipperary and Waterford, Clare will be hoping to avoid the Galway-Kilkenny losers, on the basis that they are the best from the Leinster side. As for Cork, Jimmy Barry-Murphy has them purring along very nicely. What's more, the best could be yet to come.