Sunday 19 January 2020

Comment: Galway's forwards can reach heights of Kilkenny immortals

Galway's forwards deliver yet another tour de force performance as they underline real class

Joe Canning gets a shot away despite the efforts of Paddy Deegan and James Maher. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Canning gets a shot away despite the efforts of Paddy Deegan and James Maher. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Galway's attack can become one of the greatest forward lines in the history of hurling. Yesterday's tour de force against Kilkenny was the latest evidence that there's something very special about the way Micheál Donoghue's team do things up front.

It's a remarkable turnaround. A few seasons ago the team was referred to as 'Joe Canning's Galway' so often you'd swear that was its actual name. Real Madrid. AC Milan. Joe Canning's Galway.

Canning was Debbie Harry and his forward colleagues were the lads in Blondie whose names no-one could ever remember. He nearly had a stoop in the shoulders from carrying the team.

Canning is still Galway's best player. He's also in the finest form of his career. That's probably because his burden has been lessened by the blossoming of so many quality accomplices.

He remains the leader and it was notable that after Kilkenny's third goal Canning immediately cruised through for a point at the other end to calm any nerves. But nowadays he's able to delegate a bit more work.

In Thurles yesterday Galway's forward play provoked the same reaction as it did during last year's All-Ireland final. Namely, how can you possibly mark these guys?

Their combination of pace, physical power and the kind of accuracy which makes the pitch look small and the gap between the posts enormous makes them unplayable when on top form.

Cathal Mannion epitomises this. Big, intelligent, lightning quick, able to score from almost any angle, he's like some dream forward designed by computer. Yesterday he bagged six points from play as Kilkenny's full-back line was mercilessly eviscerated.

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In the other corner Conor Whelan is a less expansive player than Mannion, a man for the quick turn in a tight space rather than the electrifying solo run, but he's just as dangerous and landed four.

Between them was Jonathan Glynn. Attacking the opposition where they're strongest is a tactic beloved of great managers and Donoghue employed it to perfect effect yesterday.

Pádraig Walsh's high fielding had been a rallying point for Kilkenny last Sunday so Glynn was placed at the edge of the square, where he wreaked aerial havoc as Galway ran up a big lead in the first quarter.

The big man's transatlantic commuting made it inevitable he'd be a peripheral figure last season. Now that he's back in Galway for the summer, Glynn is a far scarier proposition.

Glynn was a late replacement for Conor Cooney. That Donoghue could bench the St Thomas man - an All-Star last year and outstanding in round robin victories over Kilkenny and Wexford - shows Galway's awesome strength in depth.

Joseph Cooney, superb last year, has been quietly efficient this term. Niall Burke seems primed to finally deliver on his huge potential. Jason Flynn has the ability to make a crucial contribution before the summer is out, while Brian Concannon is an exciting prospect.

Conducting the whole orchestra is the Portumna maestro himself. Last year Canning lost the title of being the best hurler never to win an All-Ireland; his new companions in attack give him the chance of replacing it with something far more impressive in the coming years.

The 1-28 they scored in Thurles is the same total Tipp hit against the Cats in the classic 2014 drawn All-Ireland final. Two years later the Premier were scoring 2-29 against Kilkenny and that Seamus Callanan/Bubbles O'Dwyer/John McGrath led unit seemed capable of lasting greatness. Yet this year Tipp looked offensively toothless and failed to win a single game in Munster.

Longevity of achievement is the truest test of quality. That's why the gold standard for forward lines remains Kilkenny's four in a row attack from the Noughties, which probably hit its peak when massacring Waterford in the 2008 decider.

It contained Henry Shefflin, Eoin Larkin, Eddie Brennan, Richie Power, Aidan Fogarty and Martin Comerford, the last of whom was replaced in the second-half by a 20-year-old wunderkind named TJ Reid, who promptly hit four points from play.

Kilkenny have no youngsters that good these days. The forward factory has relocated from beside the Nore to west of the Shannon.

There are many good things about the reigning All-Ireland champions, who possess outstanding individuals in defence and midfield as well. But it is their attack which sets them apart.

Their standing as hot favourites to make it back-to-back All-Irelands largely stems from the feeling that no other contender appears to have defenders accomplished enough to withstand that front six.

The tendency to concede goals, two in the All-Ireland final, three yesterday, is one thing keeping Galway's games closer than the run of play warrants. Another is that the attack perhaps does not find the net often enough.

Yet opportunities are being created; Canning and Mannion might have had goals yesterday, while it took a fine save from Eoin Murphy to deny Flynn late on. The suspicion must be that Galway's goal drought will one day end in a lightning storm of green flags.

What's really frightening for their rivals is that Galway seem spurred on rather than sated by success.

Given that Whelan is just 21, Mannion and Flynn 23, Conor Cooney and Glynn 25, the attack can only improve. Even Canning won't be 30 till October and, if he lasts as long as Henry Shefflin - who he may yet rival as greatest hurler of all-time - might have another five seasons left in him.

The potential of Galway's forwards is almost limitless. These gifted young men can be as good as they want to be.

Wait till they go into overdrive. We ain't seen nothing yet.

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