Jamesie O'Connor - Until Galway deliver the question remains: can we trust them?
The best eight-day stretch in the hurling year has arrived. Round one of the qualifiers last night; the Leinster final today; the round two qualifier draw tomorrow morning with guaranteed fireworks in whatever big game that throws up next Saturday; followed by the Munster final the next day.
And, starting today, that means four big matches in the next week, at least three of which should be really competitive. By 6.0 next Sunday evening, the provincial silverware will have been doled out, there'll be new champions in both provinces, and it's down to a last six that few if any would have forecasted correctly before this championship began.
The stakes in Croke Park today, and Thurles next Sunday are high enough anyway, given the prizes on offer. But the reality is, two from Tipperary, Kilkenny and Waterford are likely to be sitting there waiting in the quarter-finals on July 23, which raises those stakes even further. That's a scary prospect, because whoever loses today and next Sunday will have to go to the unfamiliar surrounds of Páirc Uí Chaoimh in three weeks and take on proven opposition coming off successive qualifier victories in a winner-take-all scenario.
For a Galway side that, after Waterford's poor showing a fortnight ago, are clear favourites for the All-Ireland, that's an entirely unpalatable proposition, and one that surely frames their mindset and attitude this afternoon.
They can't allow history to repeat itself, and in that respect, 2013 has to be a reference point for Micheal Donoghue and the Galway players given the similarities with how that summer unfolded. After losing the 2012 All-Ireland final, conventional wisdom decreed they'd be there or thereabouts and wiser for the experience a year on. When Anthony Daly's Dublin drew with, and subsequently knocked Kilkenny out of the Leinster Championship, in the replay a week later, Galway were perfectly placed to capitalise and go through the front door - just as they are this afternoon. Instead, they underestimated the Dubs, and the character and leadership within that team in the Leinster final. You could argue they were complacent, or that they failed to turn up, but either way, they paid the price, and despite playing their third competitive game in as many weeks, Dublin stormed to a memorable victory. Three weeks later, Galway's season was over, ended in the quarter-final by the eventual champions Clare.
Davy Fitzgerald completely negated Joe Canning's influence by sitting a sweeper in front of him, none of the other Galway forwards proved capable of picking up the slack, and in yet another anaemic display, they were gone, and a glorious opportunity had passed.
Canning, David Burke, Johnny Coen and the other experienced Galway players have to be conscious that their window is closing. Canning appears to have been around forever, but how many more chances to get his hand on the one medal he craves is he likely to get? He'll be 29 in October, but this is his tenth championship campaign, and he's coming off a serious injury. With Kilkenny in decline, Tipp in a degree of disarray, and question marks over whether or not Clare, Waterford, Cork or Wexford are good enough yet, it's set up for Galway. The talent appears to be there. The age profile of the team - with a core in their mid to late 20s, and at their peak - is right, they definitely have the forwards and crucially, an abundance of big game Croke Park experience.
But this is still Galway we're talking about, and until they deliver, the question remains as to whether you can really trust them to deliver on their potential. Today is definitely not a day for messing around or being sloppy. It's a day for absolute professionalism. Turn up focussed, single-minded and ready to get the job done.
There are going to be close to 60,000 spectators in Croke Park today, the majority supporting the purple and gold. The last thing Galway want or need is for this game to be a contest midway through the second half, with the Wexford crowd roaring their side home.
It's easy to understand how Galway supporters would have fewer concerns were it Kilkenny and not Wexford that provide the opposition today. But complacency shouldn't be a factor, and wouldn't were it Brian Cody and not Davy Fitz on the sideline. But the fact that it's the Slaneysiders, means there is a risk Galway might underestimate the challenge and end up getting sucked into the type of dogfight I think Wexford need to have a chance to win.
Very few sides are equipped to engage Galway in a shoot-out with the forwards they have, and Wexford certainly aren't one of them. Against Kilkenny, they dictated the terms of engagement, setting up with Shaun Murphy as a sweeper, with individuals earmarked to man-mark Kilkenny's key attacking threats. Davy deserves a lot of credit for getting almost all of those match-ups right, because between them, Richie Hogan, TJ Reid and Walter Walsh contributed just a solitary point from play. But most of those match-ups had been test driven in the League quarter-final - Mathew O'Hanlon picking up Walsh, and James Breen on Reid, for example, with a similar degree of success. What they weren't prepared for was Colin Fennelly on the edge of the square rather than out on the wing where he had played in April, and the havoc he created. Kilkenny could have had five or six goals - it nearly cost them the match.
Willie Devereaux struggled badly to contain him, and Liam Ryan fared little better when they made that switch before half-time. Ger Aylward too caused a share of problems before being replaced on the half-hour mark, and could easily have had three or four scores. So while Murphy reads the game well, and is as comfortable on the ball as you need your sweeper to be, I'm not sure he plays deep enough, or possesses the same nose for danger that Pat Donnellan and Cian Dillon had when Davy was managing Clare, and that won't have been lost on a Galway side that will go looking for goals.
How much value can be ascribed to the win over Kilkenny is also debatable. There were so many un-Kilkenny like aspects to that performance, that it's hard to get an accurate read from it. Michael Fennelly was obviously a huge loss, Aylward and Pádraig Walsh had seven first half wides between them and Richie Hogan certainly didn't look close to being fully fit either. But irrespective of how good or bad Kilkenny were, you still have to beat them, and Wexford didn't back down and kept doing the right things, especially when all the momentum appeared to have swung Kilkenny's way.
As a team, they're not only playing with the confidence the early season victories have given them, but also with a level of belief that they can win, something you have to give Davy huge credit for. There's a trust in what they're doing, and while I expected their touch and striking to improve significantly under him, arguably the bigger gains have come in terms of their decision making and use of possession. They've become more efficient, making far fewer unforced errors, and that bodes well for the future of this team.
Can they do it today? They've already gone to Salthill this year, and against all the odds, lowered the Galway colours. When they asked the questions and applied the pressure, in February, with promotion on the line, Galway were found wanting, and the case can be made that the Tribesmen haven't really been tested since.
But that was then and this is now. Sure, Davy will have identified his match-ups and have a plan in place to play the game on Wexford's terms. But Micheal Donoghue is no fool either. Galway coped comfortably with Clare's tactics and sweeper in the quarter-final last year, and there's no way I see them acquiescing to whatever Wexford try to neutralise their strengths, so expect the unexpected early on.
Galway will look to get ahead and I'm not convinced Wexford are built to come from behind. Goals are required to win the big matches, and again I'm not sure they have the players or the pace with some of the injuries they have, to open up top defences. I think there are holes defensively, and it's a lot harder to shut down the space in Croke Park than anywhere else.
It's great to see them back in Croke Park and if Lee Chin and Co can curb the influence of Canning and David Burke, anything is possible. I just don't see it happening though. Galway need to get ruthless and I'll be surprised if they don't take care of business with a bit to spare.
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