Henry Shefflin: Shadow masters Kilkenny's greater firepower can give them edge
Published 05/09/2015 | 14:00
Around ten to five tomorrow, a grey smudge of shadow will be edging out from under the Davin Stand in Croke Park and stewards will materialise discreetly around the perimeter of the field.
At that moment players will, inevitably, snatch glances towards the scoreboard because, one way or another, their fate is almost sealed. The three, long blasts of James Owens' whistle will be just moments away, the hurling championship about to draw its final breaths.
For me, that familiar shadow came to signal a point of destiny. If the scoreboard arithmetic was on your side when you saw it, there was simply no better place in the world to be. No better feeling than knowing the ribbons going on the Liam MacCarthy Cup were in your colours.
One of my earliest All-Ireland final memories is sitting on my father's lap in the Hogan Stand for the 1987 decider between Galway and Kilkenny. If the game itself was no classic, that Galway team had a real charisma about them, particularly through that remarkable half-back line of Pete Finnerty, Tony Keady and, in those famous white boots, Gerry McInerney. They beat us that day and returned a year later to repeat the trick against a Tipperary team coming strong under the management of 'Babs' Keating after over 15 years in the wilderness.
That '88 decider was Galway's fourth final in a row and, with classy forwards like Joe Cooney and 'Hopper' McGrath to call upon, they were very much becoming hurling's dominant force. It would have been utterly inconceivable to anyone watching Conor Hayes lift the MacCarthy Cup for a second year running that day in '88 to imagine Galway could go 27 years without another senior All-Ireland.
But that's the extraordinary context in which Anthony Cunningham brings his team to Headquarters tomorrow. A generation has passed in Galway since they were last hurling's kings.
But Cunningham's men have looked a serious proposition this year. People noted the intensity Kilkenny showed against Waterford in the semi-final, but I think we saw something very similar from Galway against Tipperary. I suspect that Anthony has learnt a lot from Brian Cody's preparation of teams in this regard. He seems to have noted particularly the intensity with which Kilkenny's forwards play, the physical pressure they apply on opposition defences, both with the ball and without.
That's something, I'd say, that Anthony has been drilling into this Galway team these last three years. Kilkenny's intensity comes, essentially, from the top. From Brian Cody. His view is that a work ethic isn't optional. It's not something you flick on and off like a light switch. Your performances may vary, that's human nature. But work rate is sacrosanct, humility non-negotiable.
Look at Kilkenny's forward line tomorrow. Richie, TJ, Walter, Ger Aylward, Colin, they all had to serve their time before establishing a place in the team. 'Larks' is the one man who went straight in and stayed there. The others served a kind of apprenticeship.
And that apprenticeship allowed them see the qualities that Cody most appreciates. When people reference Kilkenny's intensity, it's that culture that it comes from. Getting the blocks and hooks in, not allowing your man get out past you with any ease. You could almost call it earning yourself the right to play.
Kilkenny operate constantly at that level in training, so it's pretty much a natural heat setting for their play when they get to Croke Park.
Colin Fennelly has been almost a symbol of that attitude this year, operating largely in the middle third. The first ball he got in the second half against Waterford was hard-won from a cluster of players yet, rather than shoot himself, he saw Ger Aylward in a better position 15 yards away. Next thing, Ger - who wasn't in the game up to then - had a point, his confidence boosted. That was mature stuff from Colin, making the right decision when the game is in the melting pot.
The conundrum for Galway tomorrow is what to do with Richie Hogan. Daithi Burke marked him in the Leinster final and did an ok job, but Richie did damage when he drifted out to midfield. The problem here is if you have a man-marker on Richie in that situation, Richie dropping deep creates this huge vacuum down the middle.
It corrupts your defensive structure and, of course, leaves a certain TJ Reid prowling there in front of your full-back line. So you don't really want your centre-back drifting out and I'm sure that has been uppermost in Cunningham's mind for this game.
In the semi-final, Seamus Callanan basically got about five possessions after the initial 20 minutes. Four of them were probably high balls that he caught. Will TJ get the same opportunities? Galway will have done a lot of homework to make sure that he doesn't, because he's as big a threat as Callanan. But it's got to be a worry for them that they also have to factor in Richie Hogan.
I mean who will they play at full-back? Pádraig Mannion or John Hanbury? Will they double up? It's a massive call. The Galway full-forward line has been scoring for fun in this championship, so the warning lights are clearly flashing for Kilkenny's full-back line. But I'd make the point that a lot of that scoring has been coming from out around the half-forward line too.
To me, the three best sets of forwards in hurling are Kilkenny's, Tipp's and Galway's. But the two best sets of ball-winning forwards are Kilkenny's and Galway's. That's why they're in tomorrow's final.
I've been talking all year about the skill level and quality of striking from the Galway forwards. It's absolutely top-notch. Jason Flynn, Joe Canning and Cathal Mannion can all make the ball talk. I was impressed by Flynn and Mannion from as far back as early March when they played a league game on heavy ground against Kilkenny in Salthill. They've been two of the finds of the season.
There's obviously been a swirl of rumours about injuries in the Kilkenny camp, but I get the sense that just about everybody will be there or thereabouts tomorrow. Brian Cody tends to have this week down to a fine art. There will be no rash decisions taken. He'll have given everyone the chance to prove their readiness right up to last night's final session. I suspect there will have been a few discreet fitness tests undertaken yesterday before the general group arrived at Nowlan Park. That way, there are no distractions.
It's well documented that the build-up to 2010 became a bit of a circus with all the speculation about John Tennyson and me trying to overcome our injured cruciates. In fairness, Kilkenny are well used to monitoring injuries before finals - we had it with JJ Delaney in '06 and Noel Hickey was struggling with his hamstring in '07. It's just part and parcel of it but, maybe, 2010 took it to another extreme.
There's, undeniably, a huge sense of familiarity to All-Ireland final weekend now for Kilkenny people. Even the panic for tickets, I suppose, has a vaguely routine quality. People just know the rhythms of the week and get on with it.
Accordingly, a lot is made of the comparison with a county chasing its first senior All-Ireland in more than quarter of a century, but that's just for media and supporters. Players don't really think like that. History doesn't come into their heads. It's only about the team in front of you now and Kilkenny have been given more than enough reasons to be wary of Galway.
We all remember 2012 when they gave us the kind of trimming in the Leinster final that has, otherwise, been unheard of in the Cody era. And, of course, it took a replay before we could shake them off in the subsequent All-Ireland final
You know the whole build-up has, naturally, focused on those Galway forwards, not to mention Jonathan Glynn as well as Kilkenny's two main men, TJ and Richie. But the nature of All-Ireland finals suggests it could be someone else who makes the difference tomorrow. Maybe someone like Cyril Donnellan or Walter Walsh or Colin Fennelly.
Remember last year? No-one was talking about Kieran Joyce before the final? Man of the Match. 2013? Shane O'Donnell. 2012? Big Walter. It's nearly always somebody unexpected who comes out of the pack. The ideal way to go into a game like this is without people making much of a fuss about you.
For both management teams, this week will have been - fundamentally - about re-assurance. I know Brian Cody will have made a point of getting to every player individually at some point. Nothing too heavy or profound. Players know what they have to do, it's just about keeping their confidence high. There's no high science to this.
As ever, there'll be a lot of nervous energy around, so the more low-key you can keep things the better. I have always said that forwards win matches and both teams carry serious attacking talent tomorrow. But my view is that there's maybe a greater breadth of scoring ability in the Kilkenny forward line.
We'll have a fair idea whether I'm right or wrong by the time that familiar shadow begins edging out from under the Davin tomorrow. Kilkenny had seven points to spare in the Leinster final, but I think this one will be closer.
My hunch, though, is that we'll get there in the end again, maybe with a few to spare.