Monday 16 January 2017

Henry Shefflin: Too often Tribesmen fall short when it comes to the crunch

Henry Shefflin

Published 02/07/2016 | 02:30

Joe Canning and Joey Holden tussle during last year’s All-Ireland SHC final between Galway and Kilkenny. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Canning and Joey Holden tussle during last year’s All-Ireland SHC final between Galway and Kilkenny. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

This Leinster final could be the game that finally ignites the 2016 senior hurling championship.

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Soccer and rugby have dominated the recent sporting agenda and while we haven't had a really good hurling game yet, this one could provide the spark, with both teams going at it 15 on 15 in a traditional game.

Paul Murphy, Kilkenny. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Paul Murphy, Kilkenny. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

The prospect of a game against Galway always brings back memories of the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final for me. My troubles with Gregory Kennedy have been well-documented. Galway's corner-back annoyed me that day, physically bullied me. I didn't react the way I should have, by getting the ball and hurting Greg and Galway by doing my job, which was to score.

I looked for solace from the sideline, the ref, the umpires, the linesmen. I was totally distracted but Galway brought huge levels of physicality and we couldn't cope.

Read more: Tribes' silent assassins must prove their toughness on big stage

There was Richie Murray's big early hit on Brian McEvoy and Galway set the tone right from the start. But when the game opened up, they had the skill go with that physicality - and it's a mix that Galway don't often get right.

Remember that mazy Kevin Broderick run, the flick over Eamonn Kennedy's head and that great score? That's what Galway need again if they're going to beat Kilkenny.

Problem

Gregory and I were room-mates on a shinty trip some time after that game in 2001. I was in my bedroom when a knock came to the door. Lo and behold, it was Gregory! We got on well but on the field, he was tough and did what he had to do for Galway to win. We haven't seen that consistently from the Tribesmen over the years and that's their problem in a nutshell.

I question their mentality, particularly in recent years. Cast your mind back to last year's Leinster final. Joe Canning scores a wonder-goal in the first half and the game is in the melting pot at half-time - but Kilkenny run out easy winners. Fast forward to the All-Ireland final in September. Galway are by far the better team in the first half but Kilkenny win pulling up.

Galway are a bit like the English soccer team we saw bow out of Euro 2016. When it comes to the knockout fare, they've been found wanting too often in recent times. I wonder if it dates back to 2012, when we beat them in the All-Ireland final replay?

I'll be honest, they had us worried before the drawn game, because they'd produced the best Galway performance I ever came up against when they beat us in the Leinster final. That gave them the belief that they could beat us in September - and they very nearly did it.

Read more: History, form and logic all point to more Galway woe

But that belief was gone by the replay and we won easily. I don't think that belief against Kilkenny has ever come back. Now it's Galway wondering what Kilkenny are going to bring to the table, not the other way around. Some of Galway's core players had big years in 2012, All-Star years, but ended up with no All-Ireland medal. It set them back a bit.

What Galway brought in that 2012 Leinster final was that blend of physicality, skill and a scoring touch reminiscent of 2001. When we saw them again a couple of months later, we were nervous, and that doesn't happen many Kilkenny teams under Brian Cody.

It really is incredible to think that Galway haven't won an All-Ireland senior title since 1988. They've had teams good enough since then, and given themselves chances, but haven't got over the line. We know Galway have the players and they certainly have the firepower but is time catching up with them?

Tomorrow is the acid test for this group of players, taking on the All-Ireland champions and a team that's still the best in the country. Galway's league form saw them relegated and while they've done what they've had to in the championship so far, this is an infinite step up in class.

Kilkenny work the hardest, do the simple things better than anyone else and still have the best players.

There's pressure on Galway to deliver. They were in a winning position at half-time in last year's All-Ireland final and while I don't know what happened in their dressing room at the break, I didn't see any leaders emerge in the second half.

But there has to be leaders in that squad when you see what happened with their former manager Anthony Cunningham. Those leaders stood up for what they believed in, which was change, but now they need to produce on the field.

Mayo's footballers took a similar stance by removing their management team but were dumped out of the Connacht Championship by Galway at the semi-final stage. Now we're wondering if what they did last year was right?

Read more: Kilkenny 1, Others 88 - Cody faces new test on familiar stage

The Galway hurlers face the same questions but from what I can gather, Micheál Donoghue is a very good manager. Still, some of these players have been knocking around since 2012, and well before then, but still haven't got their hands on an All-Ireland medal. It can't be the manager all of the time.

They need to work - and work incredibly hard. People talk about Kilkenny and dropping players back but they work like dogs offensively as well. Guys like Walter Walsh and Eoin Larkin will track back to provide cover but when it's time to move their bodies 20 or 30 yards to get into scoring areas, they do so. That's work-rate and that's what Kilkenny do best. Those players are back up the field and when the ball is thrown out to them, they're standing on their own, because they've worked so hard off the ball.

Kilkenny thrive in the middle-third battleground, no doubt about it, and they command the most important lines of the field - half-back and half-forward.

Incredible

Here, you need players who can win the ball and Kilkenny have them. They also had Paul Murphy (inset) and Michael Fennelly back in the team for the Dublin game, two players who missed the league semi-final defeat to Clare. The difference they make to the team is incredible, with that blend of physicality, power, strength, winning the hard ball, driving on the team.

Waterford's Austin Gleeson spoke about a hit he took from Fennelly last year. Moments like that set the tone and drain confidence from the opposition. Galway have some brilliant players too but when the pressure comes on, you need to them stand up and deliver. That's the difference between Kilkenny and Galway teams over the years.

People often wonder how Kilkenny absorb setbacks - and they've had more this year. Richie Power retiring, Ger Aylward out for the year, James Maher too, a player who was showing up well in the league. The secret is Brian. Injuries happen and are devastating for players but in the camp, there's no time to wallow.

They're basic, simple principles but continue to serve Kilkenny well.

On all known form, it should be another Leinster title for Kilkenny but I'm expecting a really good game.

Meanwhile, I'll be keeping an eye on today's qualifiers too.

Read more: Former Kilkenny ace Rice has 'no regrets' as he adapts to new life without the Cats

Clare, at home, will beat Laois and while it's been a good year for Westmeath, it's a Limerick win in Mullingar. Offaly and Wexford is interesting, two Leinster counties I came up against many times. It's an important match and while Wexford have home advantage, I have a sneaky suspicion that Offaly might pull it off.

That leaves Cork and Dublin and you'd have to imagine that Cork will be hurting after that performance against Tipperary.

Dublin have plenty of speed but they don't have enough ball-winners and in the tighter confines of Páirc Uí Rinn, I'd expect Cork to win.

Irish Independent

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