LEINSTER SHC FINAL
KILKENNY v GALWAY
(Croke Park, Tomorrow, 4.0, live RTé2)
AND so we have the Leinster final that was written in stone once the draw was made last autumn. So far, so predictably straight-forward? Anything but, as John McIntyre will readily testify.
Kilkenny have done as the script ordained by steamrolling Dublin en route to yet another provincial decider, the latest pitstop on the road to looming five-in-a-row immortality.
Galway have stuck to the script about as loosely as some of their defending against Offaly over the past two weekends. Yes, they have got here in the end -- via a thrillingly circuitous route -- to set up the 'Dream Leinster Final' that everyone expected.
But they have expended far more physical energy in the process -- even their late May opener against Wexford proved a surprisingly fraught examination for close to an hour.
Perhaps the biggest problem for McIntyre & Co, though, is the psychological damage visited upon this Galway panel by their two-game struggle to see off Offaly. The fans who were so exultant after the League final exhibition against Cork are now doubting the team's ability to survive the ultimate litmus test against Kilkenny. What if the players succumb to similar doubts?
Suffice to say, there is no team more ruthless than Kilkenny in locating a rival's weak point and then going for the jugular.
Brian Cody will have noted how the Galway full-back line leaked five goals over the course of 140 surprisingly troubled minutes against an Offaly side that was almost beaten by Antrim just weeks earlier.
Damien Joyce, Shane Kavanagh and Ollie Canning are all fine hurlers -- Canning's lengthy career has bordered on greatness -- but Cody will have sniffed weakness in how they were unhinged by Shane Dooley and Joe Bergin.
The trouble for Galway is that they're facing an even higher calibre of finishers tomorrow. So unless the Galway backs reveal a dramatic improvement in the space of eight days, another rush of green flags could beckon.
Mind you, Cody will also have spied some sloppiness in Kilkenny's own forward display against Dublin two weeks ago. He will ignore the 19-point margin and spend more time dissecting the 17 wides that marred an otherwise routine success. This errant streak, especially in the first half, meant that a seriously below-par Dublin still managed to stay within single-digit distance of the champions for most of the opening hour. It was only when Aidan Fogarty sprung from the bench to land a late brace of goals that a heavy defeat mutated into a crushing one for the challengers.
It's a measure of the opulent options at Cody's disposal that he was able to start Fogarty, Derek Lyng, Eoin Larkin (ex-Hurler of the Year) and Michael Kavanagh on the bench against Dublin. All this while having John Tennyson and James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick ruled out of any involvement by injury.
But while the Kilkenny boss could afford the luxury of experimenting with his attacking spine, he wasn't long in whipping off centre-forward Richie Hogan (44 minutes) or his skipper, full-forward TJ Reid (53 minutes) . . . proof that no man's jersey is safe under Cody. Well, maybe Henry Shefflin's at a push.
Now restored to fitness, Tennyson and Fitzpatrick have been champing at the bit in training, leaving Cody and his selectors with the welcome headache of picking from an injury-free panel last night. They opted for just one change, with Larkin coming in for Hogan, as well as a number of positional switches.
McIntyre has yet to announce his team, with justifiable reason given the genuine injury doubts to wing-back David Collins (calf) and corner- forward Iarla Tannian (quad) who have both been engaged in the proverbial race against time this week.
McIntyre's selection dilemmas don't end there: he must find a new midfield partner for Ger Farragher in the absence of the suspended David Burke, whose red card in the Offaly replay is a significant blow.
Galway's management will also have mulled long and hard over the optimum attacking formation to expose any chinks in Kilkenny's awesome defensive armour. Switching Damien Hayes to full-forward last Saturday night proved a masterstroke, yielding 2-3 from play -- but that doesn't mean the same ploy will work against Noel Hickey, especially as the element of surprise is lost.
An even bigger conundrum comes in the half-forward line, which struggled to make headway against Offaly and now faces a far stiffer aerial challenge. Kilkenny's best two performers against Dublin were Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney, on either flank of the half-back line. If they carry on in the same vein and monopolise the Galway puckout, then there is only so much damage Joe Canning can inflict closer to goal.
Besides, Canning's own form has been a bit like Galway's -- sporadic spells of brilliance in between the lulls. Maybe it's a measure of the great expectations that follow big Joe that he has scored 3-10 (2-7 from play) this summer and yet people expect more. Tomorrow, Galway need a Canning masterclass. End of.
In summary, the feeling last May was that Galway were best placed to challenge Kilkenny but now people are starting to wonder if anyone can.
If you look at the glass half-full, it should be noted that Galway historically struggle against Offaly (form notwithstanding) but history also reveals a penchant for toppling the Cats when few people can see it coming.
They have also been seriously road-tested, whereas Kilkenny have only been tested in Nowlan Park. Then again, isn't that the ultimate barometer? The champions to march on, hopefully after a humdinger.
ODDS: Kilkenny 2/5, Draw 10/1, Galway 12/5