Walsh faith in 'Holy Trinity' paying off
DENIS WALSH has been trusting his gut instinct long enough to know that, more often than not, it won't let him down.
After the dust settled on Cork's exit from the 2009 All-Ireland hurling championship, Walsh took stock and quickly surmised that a scalpel was not required.
A full pre-season would ensure that the squad approached 2010 with renewed energy and none of the baggage that had dogged them in previous winters. The players were handed their individual strength-and-conditioning programmes and told that the new year would bring better things.
Crucially, Walsh also resolved that Cork's 'Holy Trinity' would not be disturbed. John Gardiner, Ronan Curran and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín have played over 120 championship games between them but they were still the men to occupy the shirts numbered five, six and seven.
The three have a combined age of 88 years but that was irrelevant in Walsh's eyes. All he cared about was whether or not they could do a job.
Gardiner (27) has been magnificent this year, re-establishing himself as one of the country's finest defenders. The passing of the captaincy to Kieran Murphy of Sarsfields has taken some of the pressure off Gardiner, who skippered the team during the troubled 2007 and 2008 campaigns, and the Na Piarsaigh man has blossomed.
Curran has recaptured some of the form which marked him out as the country's finest centre half-back during the last decade, while Ó hAilpín remains one of the fittest and most dedicated members of the Cork panel.
All-Ireland winners have often boasted spectacular half-back lines -- Galway supporters still speak fondly of Pete Finnerty, Tony Keady and Gerry McInerney and the breakthrough Clare teams of the 1990s were anchored by Liam Doyle, Seanie McMahon and Anthony Daly.
Cork's line deserve to be mentioned in the same breath and a defiant Walsh laid down the gauntlet to opponents by challenging them to break through his decorated trio.
Walsh is rightly pleased with the blend of his panel. He's rotated wisely and well throughout the National League, with all three goalkeepers on board getting the chance to impress, while newcomers like Mark O'Sullivan, Lorcan McLoughlin and Michael Cussen have shown up well.
But the most pleasing aspect of the campaign from Walsh's point of view is the renaissance of Gardiner, the GPA's Hurler of the Year in 2005.
"We had the strikes for the last couple of years and that took quite a bit out of him and many more players," Walsh reflected. "If that had dragged on into this year, it would still be affecting him.
"But that's finished and all I wanted to do was clear his path, so that he can get on and do what he wants to do. His attitude is excellent, both as a player and a person.
"Everyone looks at that half-back line and says, 'Should it be broken up? When will it broken up? Am I the guy to break it up?'. We rotated it around a bit but the one guy that has played centre-back is Ronan.
"He's been excellent and he's 29. Seán Óg is one of the fittest guys that we have and John is right back up where he belongs. It's up to the opposition to crack them.
"My job, and the selectors', was to get them back into the unit that they were and that they now are. It's up to the opposition to break them down."
The message from Walsh is clear -- let the opposition worry about us, which Galway will most certainly have to do when the sides meet in the NHL Division 1 final at Semple Stadium on Sunday.
"I see a lot of managers in the paper talking about their gut feeling and I always go with it," Walsh said. "If I meet a person I don't like, my gut feeling is that I don't like him, no matter what he says to me.
"I knew the Cork scene fairly well. I knew some of the players from watching them at club games and league matches. My gut feeling was that there was no necessity for anybody to bale out (after last year).
"They've justified it but they had to do the business; I had to the create the situation where all the players have to perform. It doesn't matter whether you have All-Ireland medals or you don't. This is a new decade.
"The lads have risen to the occasion but we'd be aiming to move up another gear come championship time."