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Galway have a point to make

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Galway forward Cathal Mannion is one of the new faces coming
through. Picture credit: Sportsfile

Galway forward Cathal Mannion is one of the new faces coming through. Picture credit: Sportsfile

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Galway forward Cathal Mannion is one of the new faces coming through. Picture credit: Sportsfile

CAST your mind back to July 8 2012.

It was the ultimate example of Croke Park shock and awe. Galway were awesome; Kilkenny, in the first half, were shocking; and the Bob O'Keeffe Cup was heading back across the Shannon for the first time.

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, you might describe this as the first compelling indicator that hurling's most all-powerful empire was starting to crumble.

And yet ... who won Liam MacCarthy that year? Kilkenny. Who did they beat, eventually, in the first All-Ireland SHC final replay for 53 years? Galway.

And which county, since 2012, has regressed considerably further than Brian Cody's fallen champions? In a word, Galway.

All of this puts in context the importance of Sunday's latest Galway v Kilkenny rematch, with a place in the Allianz Hurling League final up for grabs.

The mere fact that this is the 2pm curtain-raiser to Clare v Tipperary at the Gaelic Grounds is telling; a year ago, such a running order would have been unthinkable.

But now Clare are the All-Ireland champions, Cody is engaged in a Black-and-Amber rebuild, and Galway are ... well ... Galway. Enigmatic. Oscillating wildly. Hard to figure out where they are heading this summer. Ever the way.

Their form graph this spring began in typical Galway fashion; beguilingly brilliant on day one (against an admittedly brutal Dublin), followed by back-to-back away defeats (in Waterford and Kilkenny), before revitalising their league ambitions with victory over Tipperary and a draw in the Banner's backyard.

On to the quarter-finals, where Limerick were comprehensively beaten on their home patch, 1-20 to 1-12.

"Today was a step up. It was their first knockout game since last year. A lot of questions will be answered the next day, though," cautioned Anthony Cunningham. And with good reason, for the Galway manager is only too well aware how his charges have failed to push on from the giddy promise of that 2012 Leinster final, when they humiliated Kilkenny for the opening half-hour, building up a jaw-dropping 16-point lead, en route to an eventual 10-point triumph.

Since then, Galway have met Kilkenny in six competitive outings of wildly varying significance. The table reads one win, one draw and four defeats. All this through a period when the Cats were either in post-Leinster recovery mode (2012 final and replay), coming down from All-Ireland highs (2013 league) or in the midst of transition (2014).

Galway's solitary victory came at the start of last year's league, 3-11 to 0-17 in Pearse Stadium, when three first half goals proved decisive. But when battle resumed at the semi-final stage, in Thurles, the Tribesmen offered pretty anaemic resistance in losing by 1-24 to 1-17.

Afterwards, Tom Helebert conveyed the impression of a selector who wouldn't lose many hours of sleep over the setback, insisting: "It would have been nice to win it – we're not going to go home morbidly depressed because we lost it. We're focused very much on the Championship."

And yet, as it happened, that performance was a portent of summer disasters to come. Galway got lucky against Laois, got a Leinster final reality check from Dublin and then got soundly beaten by Clare in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Both Helebert and Mattie Kenny, two-thirds of the managerial triumvirate that came so close in 2012, departed in the soul-searching aftermath. Cunningham hung on, with a revamped backroom team, but there's an unmistakable sense that he and his players need to deliver big this summer.

SIGNIFICANCE

That helps to explain the significance of Sunday. Okay, so it's still 'only' the league and what happens in Limerick might even be dismissed as shadow-boxing before June's putative heavyweight bout; presuming Kilkenny aren't stunned by Offaly and Galway aren't ambushed by Leinster's round-robin runners-up, these rivals will meet again in a provincial semi-final. But if Galway are to make serious inroads this season and atone for the non-event that was 2013, they could badly do with making a statement of intent here.

Several new faces, such as the Burke brothers, Ronan and Daithí, in defence, Pádraig Brehony in midfield and Cathal Mannion up front, have made eye-catching impressions this spring. But Sunday has the look of a litmus test and we should have a more accurate measure of their Championship readiness after 70 minutes in the company of a Kilkenny team that has ominously clicked into gear over their last two matches.

Even after a scratchy first half, they eviscerated Waterford, 4-22 to 0-14, to seal their quarter-final berth, where they amassed an identical tally in a 12-point defeat of Wexford. All told, Kilkenny have raised 18 green flags in six league outings. Clearly, experimentation hasn't blunted their edge or their lust for goals. Galway's semi-final task has been rendered more difficult by the broken finger that is likely to rule out veteran defender Fergal Moore, who has been a model of consistency in this campaign. Management are said to be more hopeful about Iarla Tannian and Niall Healy, both carrying hamstring injuries.

PERENNIAL

Tannian was an All Star midfielder for his performances in 2012, but has now become the latest man asked to fill that perennial problem position, centre-back.

Healy has shown recent flashes of his old scoring sparkle, nine years after the young rookie plundered an All-Ireland semi-final hat-trick against ... Kilkenny.

We're now in 2014 and the waiting game continues.


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