Tuesday 26 September 2017

First obstacle of summer will set tone for Tribesmen

Jamesie O'Connor

Westmeath waiting in long grass to punish any frailties, writes Jamesie O'Connor

With the bulk of the weekend's hurling championship action taking place last night, and the Dublin footballers opening the defence of their crown today, there aren't likely to be too many column inches devoted to the Galway hurlers, unless something goes badly awry in Mullingar this afternoon.

Westmeath's victory over Antrim may have surprised most neutrals, but it shouldn't be forgotten that with 10 minutes to go in this fixture last year, they were level with the Tribesmen. It took the introduction of Joe Canning and a late scoring burst to see Galway home, but not without significant damage being done to their mental well-being.

I saw a quote from Cyril Donnellan last week saying that their performance wrecked whatever momentum they had coming into the Leinster semi-final with Dublin, and the doubts that Westmeath match sowed in the Galway minds was something they never fully recovered from.

Consequently, any analysis by the Galway players of how last season went so pear-shaped, and ultimately ended in such a bitterly dispiriting manner, has to trace at least some of the roots to that display in Mullingar 12 months ago. So, if that doesn't frame the Galway mindset this afternoon, then nothing will.

From a Westmeath perspective, the win over Antrim may not have caused too many people to sit up and take notice, but it should have. They have plenty of decent hurlers and, in Brian Hanley, a manager that looks destined for bigger things. The lack of fitness and that little bit of belief that undid them last year are both areas he addressed, and by all accounts they have the work done.

It's not as if the Galway team selected evokes a sense of fear and dread and I'm sure Hanley will be asking his players the question as to just what exactly a lot of these players have actually done at senior inter-county level.

Anthony Cunningham has shaken things up in Galway. There are eight changes from the side that capitulated against Waterford last July. Certainly, some of the youngsters he's introduced look to have a future at this level. In particular Niall Burke looks the part at centre-forward and, while Davy Glennon didn't impress me hugely during the league, I think he's a top-of-the-ground player and will be much better as conditions get faster.

However, serious question marks still linger about the Galway goalkeeper and full-back line, and I remain to be convinced that Kevin Hynes is the man to fill the key No 3 position. Beside him, newcomer Niall Donohue has the hard edge and competitiveness required at this level. However, whether he has the pace to survive is another matter, so only Fergal Moore is really proven at this level in the inside line.

With both wing-backs, Johnny Coen and Paul Gordon, who gets in on the back of some outstanding club form, also relatively inexperienced, Cunningham will be hammering home the importance of getting a good start this afternoon to settle the team down.

Better still would be the team displaying an element of ruthlessness and destroying any sense of hope Westmeath might harbour on the back of their efforts a year ago. That's the attitude Galway will surely adopt and I suspect we'll see the urgency that was notably absent on that occasion.

Looking further ahead, Galway's championship aspirations hang firmly around the shoulders of Canning.

Having missed most of the league, his importance was showcased when he returned to almost single-handedly drag them back from the dead in the drawn relegation play-off with Dublin. Having watched them several times earlier this season, they're a different side with him in the team.

After a couple of relatively disappointing seasons, his form and fitness look to be right back to where Galway need them to be. Whatever about today, having him on the field fit and ready for Offaly/Wexford in Portlaoise in a fortnight is a priority, so if there are any doubts about his shoulder, risking it this afternoon in what's likely to be a hostile environment would be foolish in the extreme.

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