Wednesday 13 November 2019

Henry Shefflin: Blend of fire and ice sees Galway just one step from Heaven

Tribesmen showing composure to match new-found aggression

Tipperary's Shane McGrath tries to get away from Johnny Glynn of Galway during last week’s epic All-Ireland SHC semi-final DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
Tipperary's Shane McGrath tries to get away from Johnny Glynn of Galway during last week’s epic All-Ireland SHC semi-final DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE

Henry Shefflin

Sometimes you can almost read a team's readiness for battle from the quality of their warm-up drills and, to me, that was the case with Galway last Sunday.

I know that hindsight colours most conclusions that we draw, but the pre-game touch of young lads like Daithi Burke, Jason Flynn and Cathal Mannion looked just perfect to me. One drill Galway use is a player inside the '21', driving low, hard ball out to around the 45-yard line to players coming at speed. The idea is they control it with their first touch, shoot for goal with their second.

It's done at high intensity but, on Sunday, it never looked remotely forced. Nobody was spilling ball, the precision and touch almost perfect.

From my own experience as a player, the sound of a drill will almost tell you how ready you are for the game ahead. Just that rat-a-tat of perfect first touches, no groans or grumbles, nobody having to jog back towards the stand retrieving a spilled ball.

To be fair, I noted Seamus Callanan arrowing ball after ball over the bar too. His striking of frees was absolutely pure, which maybe wasn't always the case in the Munster final.

On Sunday, Tipp just needed a few more players in that kind of zone.

There’s been a defiance in Galway this year that was probably reflected in Anthony Cunningham’s post-Leinster final remark to Brian Cody
There’s been a defiance in Galway this year that was probably reflected in Anthony Cunningham’s post-Leinster final remark to Brian Cody


When you reflect on who played well in the game, I don't think you could pinpoint an especially poor performance from anyone in maroon. Yes, Pádraig Mannion struggled on Callanan, but he was up against someone who was probably unplayable on the day.

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Tipp simply didn't have that breadth of performance from one to 15. They were living off scraps but, luckily for them, those scraps kept falling to Callanan. His goals, to some extent, obscured the game.

A work colleague of mine, JJ Keys, texted me on Sunday evening: "Tipp lose another thriller!"

JJ's from Tipperary and I suppose he was saying what so many people were thinking. Single-score defeats in cracking contests have become a signature experience for this Tipp team.

It's going to be a long winter now for a lot of their players, but I don't doubt they'll be desperate to get back to this level. I think I read last week that the average age of the team is only in the mid-20s, so I can't see too many of them walking away.

Read more: Cyril Farrell: Heroics will count for nothing unless Galway finish the job

It's important to remember that they lost an epic game by a single point and I suspect Michael Ryan is smart enough to know there's nothing especially drastic required here.

But, to me, a big issue for them last Sunday was their over-reliance on short puck-outs. In the first 20 minutes, Darren Gleeson did not hit a single ball beyond his own 45-yard line. But Galway were really squeezing them in that area and, next thing, you could see Declan Fanning going in, telling Gleeson to start going long.

The problem with doing this is, suddenly, you're driving 80-yard balls down on top of players who may not have been training to win that kind of delivery.

It's now man on man and it feels an alien environment to your forwards. In the last ten minutes on Sunday, Tipp had a lot of running going on in their forwards, but it wasn't bringing people to the landing-zone of puck-outs.

At some point in games of that intensity, you need men to just stand their ground and, if not win ball, at least make sure to break it. But Gleeson had no obvious targets when he needed them and that was always going to spell trouble for Tipp.

Personally, I consider centre-forward to be 'Bonner' Maher's best position. I always loved the freedom of playing there because you can move side to side, getting on a lot of breaking ball. And, to me, that's Bonner's game. Driving onto breaking ball.

To be fair, Brendan Maher was outstanding in the Munster Championship so, again, maybe it's a little too easy to make judgements in hindsight.

But I think there's a feeling that, if Bonner is kept quiet, Tipp are inclined to struggle. And it's easier keep him peripheral when he's positioned out wide.

It might sound strange to say this, but I wonder was any part of the Tipp management thinking of pulling Callanan out to the '40'? Yes, you'd be robbing Peter to pay Paul in terms of taking that goal threat away from the edge of the square. But Callanan was so much on his game, there must have been a temptation to bring him closer to the middle third where Tipp were, largely, playing second fiddle all day.

Something happened almost every time Callanan got on the ball when, everywhere else, Tipp were struggling with Galway's intensity.

There's been a defiance in Galway this year that was probably reflected in Anthony Cunningham's post-Leinster final remark to Brian Cody.

We showed a clip on 'The Sunday Game' where they made six or seven consecutive body challenges before Johnny Glynn hooked Pádraic Maher, who drove the ball out over the line.

From that line ball, Galway instantly stitched five passes together, none of them longer than five yards. For all their intensity, everything about them was so controlled too, working these tight triangles just to get the ball to someone in a better position.

They were particularly impressive in their response to each of Callanan's goals and that's a defiance we didn't see from Galway when he did much the same to them in Thurles last year.

But, remember, this was a one-point game. The margins are tiny when you hurl at this level. And this was a game with so many important threads: Colm Callanan's triple save; his deflection of Lar Corbett's pull; the penalties; the foul off-the-ball on James Woodlock and Andy Smith getting a point while he was on the ground; Callanan getting a goal while Aidan Harte was on the ground.

I would also reference the free Callanan missed just on the stroke of half-time with Anthony Cunningham and Barry Kelly standing directly behind him, much closer than was fair.

I certainly wouldn't have been happy with that. It had to be off-putting.

Tipp were especially gracious afterwards and I think that reflected a general acceptance that the better team had won.

I have to mention Joe Canning here, who I thought had a fabulous game. I fully expected him to turn and shoot with that ball he got in injury-time, but the pass he delivered to Shane Moloney was absolutely sublime.

He put the ball in a place that allowed Moloney come at it from the perfect angle with Cathal Barrett caught on his other side.

Joe is bringing a lot of intensity to his game at the moment, but that was the composure of a special player.

Likewise the calmness shown by David Burke who drilled a lovely, 12-yard pass to him when the temptation might have been to just drive one high and long.

I would also mention the point before that and the incredible pressure applied on James Barry that forced a turnover, enabling Jason Flynn to fire an absolutely outstanding score that drew Galway level.

That was Galway last Sunday - aggressive but controlled.

If they can reproduce that on September 6, we have one hell of a final ahead of us.

* * * * *

One of the loudest cheers of the day was undoubtedly that greeting Noel McGrath's introduction off the Tipp bench.

Noel has obviously had a difficult year, but you could tell what it meant to everybody in the stadium seeing him come on. The noise from the stands was of Galway and Tipp people uniting in a celebration of his return.

It was a brilliant, brilliant moment, one that captures hurling people for me. I don't doubt when Noel was first diagnosed with his illness that playing in Croke Park again would probably have seemed a million miles away. It's some measure of his character that he managed to do it so quickly.

For a time, it even looked like a fairy tale script unfolding when he got that 70th-minute point to put Tipp in front. It wasn't to be, of course, but the sight of McGrath in Croke Park last Sunday was a reminder that, ultimately, there are bigger issues in life than the winning of hurling matches.

That's one of the reasons I've agreed to become a Patron with Ray of Sunshine, a Foundation recruiting volunteers (skilled and unskilled) from all over Ireland to undertake building projects in third world countries. In January, they will bring a team to Kenya to build a Rescue Centre in Mombasa as a refuge for abused children, some trafficked into the sex trade from ages as young as three.

If you think you might be in a position to help, please contact Olive Halpin at 087-6994599. Hurling is the colour in our lives, but there's a bigger world outside it.

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