Thursday 13 December 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Kilkenny threw down the gauntlet to Galway - I'll be surprised if it's not fired right back at them

 

Galway and Kilkenny players compete for a high ball. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Galway and Kilkenny players compete for a high ball. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown - William Shakespeare Henry IV Part Two

When you consider the record of teams trying to retain their title in the hurling championship, there's an element of truth to the great playwright's observation - Kilkenny excepted of course. Impressive as they were at times in the round-robin, Galway found out last Sunday, as did Tipperary in 2002, 2011 and 2017, Clare in 2014, and even the team I played on in the 1990s, that irrespective of how good you are, winning back-to-back All-Ireland titles is far from easy.

I opted for Thurles and the Cork-Clare match last Sunday, but I would loved to have been in Croke Park. The new format has been great, but ensuring no team has to play three or four weeks in a row is one adjustment they need to look at making next year. Not having the two provincial finals on the same day is another. I know it happens in football, but with significantly fewer big days in the hurling calendar, I don't think it works.

The Leinster round-robin finished a week before its Munster counterpart, which meant Galway and Kilkenny had three weeks to prepare for last weekend's contest. In hindsight, with a little planning, there was surely no reason why that game couldn't have been played a fortnight ago, a week before the Munster final.

Regardless, the draw has seriously disadvantaged whoever loses this afternoon because a fresh, rested and pumped-up Limerick await in the quarter-final in just seven days. The evidence from the group phase in May and June can't be ignored. No side secured victory in their third match playing on three consecutive weekends. That's the challenge facing whoever ends up vanquished this evening, because today is likely to be every bit as hard-fought and physical as a week ago. The stakes were high enough anyway. That fact raises them even further.

After the game finished, it appeared to me that Brian Cody was expecting extra time to be played, until Derek Lyng confirmed otherwise. It wasn't their call, but for both sides that might have been the preferable option because it's a short turnaround to this evening. Cork are one of the three best teams in the country. The reality is that one of the other two will be in serious jeopardy of prematurely exiting the championship this day week.

Cillian Buckley tries to get away from Cathal Mannion. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Cillian Buckley tries to get away from Cathal Mannion. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Listening to the radio commentary in the car on the way home last Sunday, you got a sense of how tight and intense the game appeared to be, a contrast to the more open affair we had in Thurles. I watched The Sunday Game later that night, but it was only watching the full game back during the week that I got a true insight into just how tough and frantic the exchanges were. At 0-18 to 0-18, it was a completely different game to the 2-24 to 3-19 shootout in Munster, but no less compelling for it.

Going into the game I felt that while Kilkenny would close the gap that was evident between the sides when they last met in Salthill, Galway would still have too much in hand, even if they weren't at their best. That assessment wasn't a mile off. Galway didn't play well, and Micheál Donoghue didn't look happy at any stage on the sideline at what was unfolding in front of him.

Cody, on the other hand, was energised by the efforts of his players. I've no doubt he was building their confidence up in the weeks beforehand. There was no way they were going to be bullied as they were in the round-robin clash. Kilkenny's ability to learn from their mistakes is unrivalled and they weren't going to be repeated. They were far more compact and harder to break down defensively, with Cillian Buckley and Joey Holden sitting deeper, thereby denying the Galway forwards anything like the space they created a month ago.

With their midfielders and half-forwards working back, they succeeded in making it into the type of game it needed to be for Kilkenny to have a chance of winning. They'll take huge heart and confidence, not merely from how Galway were never able to get away from them, but also by how they finished.

Daithí Burke was exempt from criticism in the Galway defence. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daithí Burke was exempt from criticism in the Galway defence. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

To get the last three scores with only five or six minutes, including stoppages, left on the clock, two of them coming from John Donnelly and Enda Morrissey - players with virtually no Croke Park experience - was testament to their self-belief, and Cody's astute management.

If there's still a reliance on TJ Reid up front, they're getting closer to finding the right blend in attack. Billy Ryan really impressed on debut, and we saw glimpses at the end, with the cross-field ball for Morrissey's point, what Richie Hogan can still bring. That cameo won't have done his confidence any harm, and along with Colin Fennelly and Liam Blanchfield, who also came off the bench in the second half, they have options if things aren't working.

So knowing what Kilkenny will offer, today is really about Galway, and their attitude and state of mind.

I said in my championship preview about them back in May that 'they might need to suffer a setback in the province to get the impetus needed to go all the way. If that's the way it plays out, I think they'll recover to be champions.' Last Sunday definitely constitutes a setback. How they respond to it is critical. The defence are exempt from criticism - with Daithí Burke and Padraic Mannion again to the fore, but there was a worrying lethargy elsewhere. Both midfielders were below par, and only Niall Burke and, to a lesser extent, Cathal Mannion, performed up front.

There are clearly things they need to address. A start would be getting the wides count back into single figures. They hit 12 last Sunday and while that mightn't normally be a debilitating figure, in a big match like last Sunday's, once that tally gets into double digits it spells trouble.

Eight of those wides came in the second half when Galway were arguably in the ascendency and if that figure had been halved, the likelihood is they'd have won the match. All told, Galway only converted 18 of the 36 scoring chances they created, 50 per cent. Some of that can be put down to the intensity with which Kilkenny defended and the pressure they applied, but not all of it.

The other statistic that stands out is the frees converted. Six from 12, again only 50 per cent. Some of the dead balls Joe Canning failed to convert were from distance or awkward angles, but given the level we're accustomed to seeing him operate at, it was a definite off day for Galway's key marksman. That's unlikely to be repeated.

One other area that may have been discussed in the Galway camp was some of their decision-making on the ball. Clearly the lack of goals in 2017 was something they're conscious of. I get that, but there were sweepers involved and you have to pick your moments. There were occasions last Sunday when they were guilty of forcing it, looking for goals that weren't really on and easy points went begging as a result. Points, provided you get enough of them, will get the job done.

What matters more than anything else this afternoon is what's going on inside the Galway players' heads and hearts. The gauntlet has been well and truly thrown down. I'll be very surprised if it's not picked up and fired right back. Galway to win, and don't be surprised if it's by five or more.

Finally, as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations, the St Thomas's club in Galway are running a seven-a-side competition on Saturday and Sunday July 21 and 22. The twist is that the teams competing are all previous All-Ireland club winners, and no doubt there'll be plenty of legends in attendance over what should be a great weekend, including the current Galway captain David Burke.

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