Jamsie O'Connor: Tribe can finally get fire started in the championship
The exploits of the rugby side in South Africa, the soccer team in France, and Shane Lowry's narrow miss at the US Open over the last three weeks may have meant the GAA has been garnering a little less attention than is normally the case for this time of year but it has been a great few weeks for Irish sport, admittedly tinged with regret at what might have been in Johannesburg, Lyon and at Oakmont.
But what we have seen to date in Thurles, Portlaoise and elsewhere hasn't exactly been memorable. We are still waiting for this hurling championship to catch fire. It's not as if there has been a shortage of glamour ties - Cork v Tipperary, Clare v Waterford, Tipperary v Limerick, and even Dublin v Kilkenny - could all have fitted that bill. But none of those potential touch papers provided the spark to really ignite the season, and we have already reached the provincial final stage.
If anyone can light the fuse though, it's surely Galway today. And it's not as if they don't have previous. On more than one occasion they have landed into Croke Park and blown up the championship at Kilkenny's expense. When they have turned the Cats over - as they did in 2001, 2005 and 2012 - it has been completely out of the blue. Few if any had seen it coming. I certainly didn't in the Leinster final in Croke Park four years ago. A competitive match, but no more than that, was the extent of our expectations. What we got was an explosion of flair, pace, and skill, reminiscent of Joe Cooney, Eanna Ryan and the Galway team of the '80s at their best. it was Blitzkrieg stuff.
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But Kilkenny have taken their revenge, and for all the hurling Galway have done, that solitary Leinster title in 2012 is all this group of players have to show for it. While it took Kilkenny until the second half of that year's All-Ireland final to finally get to grips with them, subsequent results, including last year's Leinster and All-Ireland finals, indicate they have figured the Tribesmen out, and have had their number ever since.
That said, Kilkenny still won't underestimate the potential challenge Galway present, which removes the key element of surprise. Pessimists might argue that there was nothing in their league form, or any evidence in the wins over Westmeath and Offaly to suggest that Galway have materially closed the gap between the two sides from last September. But that gap wasn't huge to begin with, and closing it is not an insurmountable task.
Micheál Donoghue is a shrewd guy, and once the draw was made, Galway were always going to get to the Leinster final. Everything will have been planned towards being ready to deliver a performance today. And it's not as if the Galway players will lack for motivation, given the pain they have suffered at the hands of Kilkenny. Throw in the added pressure, that after the heave against Anthony Cunningham, the knives are likely to be out if they don't front up, and I can't see them turning up not ready to do battle.
One warrior they won't have today is Jonathan Glynn. His raw ball-winning ability will be missed, and he is a loss to Galway. But that loss is offset to an extent by the return of both Niall Burke and Conor Cooney, neither of whom featured in 2015. Whatever hurling finesse Glynn may have lacked, he more than made up for in other ways, particularly as a primary ball winner. Cooney and Burke don't play with the same natural aggression, but they are arguably better hurlers. With a unit that already numbers Joe Canning, Cathal Mannion, and Jason Flynn among its ranks, that's more than enough firepower to concern Kilkenny.
However, it doesn't matter how many finishers Galway have up front if they can't get their hands on the ball. That was the key issue last September. For whatever reason, they didn't seem prepared for the increased physicality and intensity Kilkenny brought after the interval. When the pressure came on, and it was relentless, they struggled to win any possession in the middle third and there were no complaints given how emphatically Kilkenny shut down the vaunted Galway attack.
Losing when you're outhurled is one thing. Being outfought is another. The harsh reality is that Galway were both outfought and outhurled in that second half. That adds to the already bitter pain of losing an All-Ireland. Channelling that in the right manner, learning from the mistakes made, and more importantly, not repeating them, are all key factors that, if addressed, could well trigger a Galway win.
So if Galway have the forwards, and can find a way to get more than 40 per cent of the ball, the question is then whether or not the defence is likely to be good enough to hold out at the other end? That's where I have my concerns. How many Galway defenders would get into the Kilkenny or Tipperary teams at the moment?
Two perhaps: Dáithí Burke and maybe Pádraic Mannion. At 34, does Fergal Moore still have the legs for Croke Park? Will John Hanbury survive at full-back? Can Aidan Harte cope with Walter Walsh's physicality?
With the obvious exception of TJ Reid, the Kilkenny forward line lacks the cutting edge of its predecessors, especially with Richie Hogan on the bench. But their ability to add up to more than the sum of the individual parts continues to set them apart. While they're unlikely to cut Galway open, when they have 60 or 70 per cent possession, as was the case against Dublin three weeks ago, scores will inevitably follow.
Anyone tuning in on that occasion and hoping to see evidence of Kilkenny slowing down, or the hunger abating would have been bitterly disappointed. All those questions, and the doubts about the Kilkenny full-back line after Clare put 4-22 on them in the league semi-final were assuaged. Normal service was resumed. The half-back line was utterly dominant, the wing-forwards came deep, with Conor Fogarty settling into his usual holding midfielder role, and the wrecking ball that is Michael Fennelly at his best all combined to destroy any platform Dublin might have been hoping to build. And in such circumstances, the full-back line, with Paul Murphy at his imperious best, had a trouble-free afternoon.
In many respects, it was an awesome display of power from Kilkenny, and a clear warning sign to the rest that the path to September will once more run through the champions. The caveat is that far sterner tests than Dublin lie ahead, beginning this afternoon.
Are Kilkenny as good as what they were in 2012 or 2014? I don't think so, and that makes them beatable. Tipperary, Waterford, Galway and, to a lesser extent, Clare have both the potential and personnel, and more than one of them will lay down a serious challenge before the season ends. Starting today, the championship is about to get interesting. Galway have every chance, but Kilkenny remain the safer bet. That's where my money is going.
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