Saturday 20 April 2019

Comment: Replay should tell us an awful lot more about the lay of the land

Galway have something to prove, while Cody is likely plotting left-field move to re-energise Cats

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo: Sportsfile
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

There are few things in sport less satisfying than a draw.

We like to think that a match supplies some kind of definitive proof. Hence our eagerness to pretend the World Cup penalty shootout is somehow always won by the better team. Reams have been written, for example, about how England's victory over Colombia proved the footballing and psychological superiority of the former over the latter.

In reality penalties are an almost entirely arbitrary measure of overall worth but sporting uncertainty makes us uneasy. And nothing is as uncertain as the meaning of a drawn game. We need the replay before we can be sure what the moral of the story was. Nature abhors a vacuum.

The general consensus after Galway and Kilkenny's draw was that it showed Galway aren't all they were cracked up to be and that Kilkenny are stronger than they'd looked earlier in the championship. However, if today's game produces the comfortable victory for Galway which most people expected last week, that drawn match will either be forgotten or dismissed as a blip, a day when Galway were caught on the hop. So we won't know what to make of last Sunday till we see this Sunday.

The 'normal service has resumed' replay is perhaps the most common kind. A classic example of this was the 2012 All-Ireland final replay. In the first game Galway had poached an early lead and hung on for dear life for a long time before Kilkenny eventually secured the draw. The replay was pretty much all Kilkenny and they won by 11 points. There was the sense of class telling and of a massive opportunity having been squandered by the underdogs first time out.

That's often how it is. It was that way in the 2016 football final and 2015 semi between Dublin and Mayo, in last year's quarter-final between Mayo and Roscommon, in the 2016 hurling semi between Kilkenny and Waterford, in the 2013 All-Ireland hurling final between Clare and Cork and in the 2001 and 2003 hurling semis when Wexford teams who'd earned unexpected draws received second-day trouncings from Tipperary and Cork respectively. You generally get just one shot at an upset. In the words of the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson: 'When you strike at a king, you must kill him.'

But it doesn't have to be that way. Sometimes a team which rises to unexpected heights can gain such confidence, and instil sufficient doubts in the opposition from the draw, that they kick on in the replay. A great example of this is the drawn game between Kilkenny and Dublin in the 2013 Leinster championship. The Dubs played out of their skin in that semi-final and were unlucky not to win. Everyone presumed Kilkenny would have their number the next day but instead Dublin won by three points, building on their own newly-revealed strengths and the weaknesses they'd discovered in the Cats.

The defeated Kilkenny line-up included TJ Reid, Walter Walsh, Padraig Walsh, Cillian Buckley, Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly, Ger Aylward, Paul Murphy, Conor Fogarty and Eoin Murphy, all of whom found themselves in the extremely unusual position of being total underdogs going into last week's game. For all the Munster fireworks, at 4.0 last Sunday afternoon the prognosis was that Galway looked head and shoulders above anyone else in this year's championship.

It wasn't just that they'd beaten Wexford and Kilkenny so easily in the round-robin stage, it was also that they'd looked so utterly comfortable while doing so. Galway seemed a team without weaknesses. The situation looks a bit more complicated now. The mood of delight gripping Cork in the past few days has only been exacerbated by the evidence that this year's championship is not quite such a foregone conclusion after all.

Looking at what was a pretty pedestrian scrap in Croke Park last week right after the exhilarating classic from Thurles, you wondered if the Leinster teams might yet have problems getting up to the pitch at which the Munster sides have been playing since the start of the summer.

Being forced into an extra game may be good for both of today's teams. Had Galway held on for the narrow victory which seemed likely for much of the second half, they'd have gone into the semi-final without facing the kind of examination which Cork have faced several times already. That narrow victory might not have done much to shake the complacency apparent last Sunday. 'Sure, didn't we come through in the end?', may not have seemed an unreasonable attitude for reigning All-Ireland champions to take. Instead, for the first time since last year's final, Galway have something to prove today.

Whereas Galway's summer had, up to last Sunday, resembled that of a long-haired lead singer cruising down the freeway in a 1980s heavy metal video, Kilkenny have had little choice but to go more or less flat out since the start of the championship. You sense that the more games they get under their belt the better Brian Cody will feel.

Six years ago against Galway, Cody pulled one of the great replay masterstrokes of all-time. Galway's corner-back Johnny Coen had been man of the match in the draw so Cody brought in Walter Walsh, utterly untried as a senior but with a good record against Coen at underage level. Walsh was sensational, scoring 1-3 and utterly tormenting the Galway defence. Cody's introduction of the unheralded Billy Ryan in the draw was out of the same bracket, as was his selection of Liam Blanchfield in the semi against Waterford two years back. These left-field moves tend to work for Kilkenny and you wonder if another one might be planned for today.

The pressure is on Galway. Had they lost by a point last week, their reputation may not actually have suffered that much as the case could be made that they'd been caught on the hop, it was a one-off etc. Should they lose today after being forewarned it would be a blow from which their confidence might not recover. But were Kilkenny to match the champs for a second week in a row their case to be considered as genuine All-Ireland contenders will be irrefutable.

A win this week will probably feel more important for either team than it would have last week. That's why it's a pretty safe bet that this replay will be a big improvement on the draw. It would need to be. 'Grimly compelling' is not a good look for Leinster hurling when every week Munster treats us to entertainment extravaganzas.

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