Tuesday 24 April 2018

Henry Shefflin exclusive: 'A lot of things happened in the 2012 final that never happened before or since'

Henry Shefflin, Kilkenny, shows his dissapointment after the Leinster final in 2012
Henry Shefflin, Kilkenny, shows his dissapointment after the Leinster final in 2012

Henry Shefflin

I was just thinking this week that in my championship career the team that hurt Kilkenny most was Galway.

They beat us three times (as did Cork) and drew with us twice, while Tipp and Wexford beat us once. So you can understand Kilkenny's routine wariness of the maroon jersey. Everybody knows about the All-Ireland semi-finals of '01 and '05, two games seen as hugely significant for the Kilkenny team of the past ten years.

But there's a lot more to our modern history with Galway than those two setbacks.

They were introduced to the Leinster Championship in '09, immediately bringing a real energy to the province. We got a serious game against them in Tullamore that year until a string of ten unanswered points helped us to pull away. It looked that day as if they'd set down a marker.

So their arrival into the 2010 Leinster final had us very much on a war footing, but the challenge proved non-existent. They were like a team that felt out of place in that final, one totally wracked with nerves. It was as if they just couldn't see themselves beating Kilkenny in Croke Park.

But you turn that on its head and go to 2012 where, from the absolute get-go in that Leinster final, they were on fire, giving Kilkenny their worst beating in a long time. I know that Cork beat us heavily in the '04 All-Ireland final, but that was a case of them pulling away in the last 15 minutes.

Galway absolutely cleaned us out on Leinster final day three years ago. It might seem strange for me to say this, but the one thing we took from that game was winning the second half. Going in 0-4 to 2-12 down at half-time, the invitation was there for us to just lie down and die. It was important that we rejected it.

You see, everything that could have gone wrong for us that day did. If there's an image that stands out, it's probably of Tommy Walsh completely mis-hitting two line cuts in quick succession. A lot of things happened that day that never happened before or since.

Galway’s David Burke celebrates after scoring the second goal against Kilkenny during the crushing Leinster SHC final win of 2012
Galway’s David Burke celebrates after scoring the second goal against Kilkenny during the crushing Leinster SHC final win of 2012

To that end, I believe the game stands as a very relevant experience for a lot of the current Kilkenny players. I think it was Cillian Buckley's first championship start and people like TJ Reid and Richie Hogan were playing too. The memory will be fresh for them all, reminding them of what's behind our general wariness of Galway.

Even look at our two games with them last year. Out of 140 minutes of hurling between the draw and the replay, Galway put it up to Kilkenny for maybe eight or nine minutes. But look at the trouble that single burst caused. It's what Galway can do. They just click into gear out of nothing, causing teams massive problems.

One thing I would say about them this year is that there are growing signs of consistency, hints of a ruthless streak. They've now put both Dublin and Laois to the sword, but this - of course - will be the litmus test.

I see more structure in their play this year, the spine of the team looks pretty settled. And Galway have size on their side this time.

The likes of Jason Flynn and Cathal Mannion bring real physical strength to the attack, but - like Joe Canning - they're hugely skilful hurlers too. Jonathan Glynn has big ball-winning ability under puck-outs.

So they have strong men in attack now and Galway won't be afraid to land puck-outs down on top of the Kilkenny backs. They'll feel they have a real possibility of winning them.

The thing I like about Galway so far is that they've looked ruthless. They've scored goals through a full-forward line that has the capacity to do damage to any team.

On that basis, Kilkenny will be on their guard. Joey Holden wasn't really tested against Wexford and you'd have to expect he'll face some awkward questions this time. That said, I've a lot of confidence in Joey as Kilkenny's full-back and, if I'm honest, suspect this game might be won or lost at the other end of the field.

Cathal Mannion of Galway
Cathal Mannion of Galway

I was impressed by Kilkenny's forward play against Wexford and I'm just not sure many teams would have lived with them that day. The sharpness and touch on show was exemplary. But if I was to choose one word to sum up Kilkenny against Wexford, it would be HUNGER.

You couldn't be sure what to make of Kilkenny after the National League because there had been so many players missing. It meant there was no real, discernible flow of confidence to them.

So the question against Wexford was would the appetite be restored? That question was answered with a vengeance.

Looking at Kilkenny, you were looking at a team just desperate to get out and hurl.

I think a lot of managers can over-focus before games on what the opposition might do. Cody's approach has always been just to concentrate on getting Kilkenny right.

He knows how games often just take on a life of their own, so the one thing you can control is getting a certain level of performance.

Michael Fennelly is back from injury
Michael Fennelly is back from injury

That's something Kilkenny consistently do better than most.

You also need people on the field who you can be trusted to react properly to a setback.

Look at Meath footballers last Sunday, they desperately needed someone to win a free, a dirty ball, anything, just do something to break Westmeath's momentum. But they had nobody to do that.

Kilkenny have had those characters in spades over the years.

In terms of All-Ireland hopes, I think Galway can afford to lose tomorrow. What they cannot afford is a bad performance. If they fall flat on their faces as they did in 2010, I just couldn't see them bouncing back.

But I don't expect that to happen. I expect them to really put it up to Kilkenny because I'd say they're really looking forward to this.

That said, Kilkenny's big players all put in big performances the last day, lads like Richie and TJ in attack. Michael Fennelly, back from injury, was a tower of strength.

And I think their backs are simply stronger than Galway's. It could be close, but Kilkenny will come through it.

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