Wednesday 21 February 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Fewer variables could hold the key to Kilkenny's successful defence

All-Ireland Hurling final analysis

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody

Jamesie O'Connor

With the retirements of so many big names, there were always going to be question marks surrounding the Kilkenny full-back line, the outstanding Paul Murphy aside, this summer. And Joey Holden in particular.

Yet, to date those questions have been answered. Conor McDonald, Joe Canning and Maurice Shanahan have all been seen off without any major damage being inflicted. In Jackie Tyrrell's injury-enforced absence, Shane Prendergast hasn't put a foot wrong either.

And behind them sits a top-class keeper whose handling and distribution have been excellent. With just two goals conceded in the three games, Eoin Murphy hasn't really had a whole lot to do and despite all the retirements, it's been business as usual at the back. That's primarily down to the fact that while the personnel may have changed, the defensive structure hasn't.

This is a team where roles are clearly defined and players know what's expected of them. At least one of the midfielders will sit deep, the half-forwards will track back tirelessly and there'll be plenty of black and amber jerseys in their own half when the opposition have the ball.

With that level of cover, the Kilkenny half-backs rarely end up getting dragged too far out the field. So with the team defending en masse, and Cillian Buckley in imperious form at number seven, it's no surprise that space has been at a premium for their opponents, and that they haven't coughed up too many goalscoring opportunities.

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Yet the lingering suspicion remains that Holden and Prendergast haven't really been tested, and that Galway can get at them. Waterford's defensive set-up in the semi-final meant Kilkenny were never likely to be under the type of pressure they could face today. But Galway have the personnel and in particular the pace and power up front to make it a far more taxing afternoon.

The fact that essentially the same set of Galway forwards failed to make any great impression in the Leinster final should be discounted. I thought their touch and movement were poor on the day: they allowed both Cathal Mannion and Jason Flynn to be shackled in the corners and they never kicked on, especially after Flynn got their second goal immediately after half-time.

But that was then and this is now. Lessons were learned, and Galway's intensity and movement have improved immeasurably in the last two games. Conor Whelan is a definite upgrade, Johnny Glynn and Cyril Donnellan give them genuine ball-winning ability, and Joe Canning has been far more influential.

The biggest dividend has been the form of Mannion and Flynn, both of whom have been fantastic. Getting them into space and on the ball out the field has proved a masterstroke, and yielded a bountiful harvest. Mannion alone has been on the ball a staggering 29 times, and hit 12 points from play in those two matches. Movement has been the key, but if either he or Flynn can sustain that form into today, and Canning catches fire, as he could very well do, they have every chance of putting the scores on the board to win.

A key battleground, and one that will be fiercely fought given how heavily populated the middle third of the field is likely to be.

Of the four starting midfielders, Conor Fogarty is easily the most under-rated, but has excelled in the holding role he's played since breaking into the team last summer. Effectively acting as an auxiliary defender, sitting just in front of his half-back line, Fogarty picks up a lot of breaking ball and gets through an amount of work, much of which goes unseen. I know from speaking to JJ Delaney the respect he commands within the team for the selfless role he plays, and he's the perfect foil to Michael Fennelly.

Outstanding in their championship opener against Wexford, the former Hurler of the Year missed the Leinster final through injury but was back to his imposing best against Waterford in the semi-final. As powerful and forceful as ever, Fennelly not only brings huge physical presence, and a ton of experience, but has the capacity to dominate proceedings in the middle of the field as he did in last year's replay.

After a disappointing Leinster final, where he struggled to make an impact at number ten, David Burke, back in his preferred position has found form at just the right time, and was arguably man of the match in the semi-final win over Tipperary. The two scores he got came at crucial times, but he had a hand in several others, and I thought he linked the play between defence and attack really well.

Beside him Andy Smith, wearing the captain's armband in David Collins' absence, is likely to pick up Fennelly, and that's an intriguing battle. Smith's work-rate has been excellent, and while naturally aggressive and abrasive, I think he's become more disciplined and less inclined to foul. While it's not an area I can see Galway dominating, the key will be not to lose it.

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Nothing is likely to have exercised Anthony Cunningham's mind more over the last three weeks than the thought of how Galway go about stopping Richie Hogan, TJ Reid and the rest of the Kilkenny attack.

Do they man-mark Reid and Hogan, as they did in the Leinster final, and risk being dragged all over the field? Or do they hold the positions they're comfortable in, try to keep their shape, and pick up the nearest Kilkenny jersey? Either way is fraught with danger, given the players Kilkenny have and the multiple ways they can hurt you.

Considering the job he did on Hogan in the opening 40 minutes of the Leinster final, it's reasonable to assume that Daithi Burke will again be the one tasked with marking the current Hurler of the Year. But with 1-3 from play, and direct involvement in four other scores, Reid was the one who did the greater damage. Picking up Reid, Padraic Mannion found himself repeatedly isolated in space, and in the circumstances, didn't do too badly. However, he isn't comfortable playing full-back, as evidenced by the damage Seamus Callanan did there three weeks ago, and that's where Reid has operated for much of the summer. They clearly aren't ready to trust John Hanbury with that job just yet either, so it wouldn't shock me if Burke was the one tracking Reid and effectively playing full-back this afternoon.

Mannion could pick up Richie Hogan, but there are any number of potential match-ups. There's also no guarantee that Cody will give Galway what they expect. Hogan did significant damage operating at full-forward in the 2012 replay, and it won't have slipped Cody's mind how effective Walter Walsh has historically been on Johnny Coen either.

After Galway's struggles with the high ball in the semi-final, Kilkenny could load their inside line with ball winners and launch an aerial bombardment from the start. Ger Aylward's form means he has to be carefully watched, and with Richie Power apparently fully fit in reserve, who knows what Cody has up his sleeve?

Tactically, I don't think Kilkenny will do anything radically different given how successful they've been at imposing their game-plan on other teams. With Eoin Larkin drifting out the field, bringing a defender with him, Reid and Aylward have been left in a two-man full-forward line - and on occasion one-man when Aylward goes as well. That's left a lot of space to exploit especially with runners coming from deep, and they engineer a lot of scoring chances. It takes ferocious concentration and energy to keep them out for 70 minutes.

The Galway defence played really well the last day, and outside of Callanan, held the other starting Tipperary forwards to just five points between them. Colm Callanan was superb, however, and on reflection, Tipperary could easily have had another two goals. That's a cause for concern, because Kilkenny present an infinitely stiffer test. With the quality and flexibility they have up front, and the relentless pressure they apply, the Galway backs may well need their own attack to bail them out.

I remember a former Kilkenny player stating before the 2011 All-Ireland final that it would be Brian Cody's greatest managerial achievement were Kilkenny to win back the title that year. If that was the case, where does standing on the cusp of annexing four of the next five All-Irelands rank, since Tipperary put paid to the five in a row in 2010?

What about losing players of the calibre of JJ Delaney, Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh and Brian Hogan, at the start of the year, and still coming back with a team that stands on the brink of yet another title?

What is left to say about Cody? To keep reinventing the team, and himself in the process, and come back year after year hungrier than ever is a phenomenal achievement.

In the opposite corner today, though, stands a man who is equally driven. After two bitterly disappointing years, Anthony Cunningham would have been forgiven for walking away last winter, but he clearly wanted the job, and has proven himself to be the best man for it.

Like Cody, he hasn't shirked making hard decisions, and the faith he's put in the younger players this season has been rewarded. True, he would have been castigated for not switching Padraig Mannion off Seamus Callanan had Galway come up short three weeks ago, but that mistake is unlikely to be repeated.

Tactically, Cunningham will have to find a way to outsmart, or at least match, Cody. He's done it before. But no-one has been more adept at probing for and finding weaknesses in the opposition's armour over the years than the Kilkenny maestro.

Can Galway do it? They have a gap to close, given there were seven points between the sides in the Leinster final, and Kilkenny were without both Michael Fennelly and Richie Power on that occasion.

But it's indisputable that Galway are now a far better side than the team that took the field in Croke Park last July.

The word is they're as ready as they're ever likely to be, and I think they'll deliver a big performance. Whether that's good enough might come down to just how big an impact Joe Canning can make. It's hard to see Galway winning if he fails to fire, but he's very close to playing really well, and the odds tumble if he has a big afternoon.

Will Galway do it?

As ever, there are fewer ifs, buts and maybes when it comes to Kilkenny.

My suspicion is that their defence will hold up better than Galway's. In such circumstances, they get the nod. Kilkenny to win.

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