Thursday 22 March 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Sobering for the rest as Cats get job done with relative ease

Kilkenny's Eoin Larkin with manager Brian Cody following their victory
Kilkenny's Eoin Larkin with manager Brian Cody following their victory

Jamesie O'Connor

In a season that promised much, but - with the notable exception of the Tipperary-Galway semi-final - failed to deliver, it was apt that the year finished as it did. A disappointing All-Ireland final; emblematic of the season as a whole.

It was surreal how quickly the stadium emptied after the match, and the sense of anti-climax was palpable, especially given how well Galway had matched Kilkenny's intensity and physicality in the first half. But the life had been squeezed out of the game, and Galway's challenge, long before James Owens blew the final whistle.

I felt Galway were in a really good position at half-time. Admittedly, they should have been further in front; seven wides was at least a couple too many, but they were doing a lot of the things that needed to be done to give themselves a realistic chance.

The job was only half done though, and they would have known that the onslaught was going to come directly after the interval. Paul O'Connell often references the importance of that ten-minute period, those 'championship minutes' immediately after half-time. That's when the Tribesmen needed to really dig in, roll up their sleeves and be prepared to match whatever Kilkenny threw at them.

What Galway couldn't afford, though, was to get drawn into the war of attrition contest the second half rapidly became. With Michael Fennelly and Conor Fogarty parked in the Kilkenny half-back line; and TJ Reid, Richie Hogan, Eoin Larkin and Walter Walsh foraging for ball deep into their own half, especially on the opposition puck-out, Kilkenny flooded the middle third with black and amber jerseys, sucked Galway in, and ensured the game was rougher, tougher and played on their terms.

So, rather than the game opening up, as it often does in the second half of big matches, the opposite was the case. There was no space for the Galway forwards to play in; the early scores they might have hoped for to drive home their advantage never came, and it was Kilkenny who seized the initiative and wrestled back control of the match in that defining period.

Read more: 'I hate losing' - No-one epitomises Kilkenny's rage against surrender more than Eoin Larkin

Three scores had them level inside seven minutes, but there was a touch of good fortune about the point that opened their second-half tally. Cyril Donnellan probably felt he was fouled by Pádraig Walsh, and playing for the free, hit the ground and stayed there.

‘What split the sides last weekend wasn’t preparation, or even workrate. It was just sheer will and determination’
‘What split the sides last weekend wasn’t preparation, or even workrate. It was just sheer will and determination’

There was contact, but it was a marginal call and no great surprise when the whistle wasn't blown. His hesitation cost him and seconds later he was pinged for overcarrying. Kieran Joyce mis-hit the resultant free, but it looped over two Galway players to Conor Fogarty, who duly pointed it. A foul on Ger Aylward by Daithi Burke reduced the deficit to one, and a TJ Reid '65 had Kilkenny level shortly after.

From there to the end, with the scent of blood now in their nostrils, Kilkenny upped the ante even further. The tackling and work rate of the midfielders and half-forwards was ferocious, and with pressure on every Galway player in possession, it made life easier for those at the back. The New England Patriots have a saying, 'Do your job'. The conditions of selection ensure that every Kilkenny player subscribes to that mantra. The manager demands it, irrespective of how unglamorous aspects of that job may be.

It's the willingness of Reid, Larkin and the others to do the hard graft, win the dirty ball and work selflessly for the team, that separates them from everybody else, and makes them the side they are. With the Galway forwards fighting a losing battle and struggling to win any primary possession, the writing was on the wall once Kilkenny hit the front.

I watched the game back last week, to see how and where it went wrong for Galway, and it was staggering to note that over 25 minutes of the second half had elapsed by the time Jason Flynn and Joe Canning got their hands on the ball in open play.

Brian Cody
Brian Cody

Read more: Kilkenny's business as usual

Needless to say, the consequences of that were fatal. Conor Whelan, who worked his socks off throughout, was the only one of the six starting Galway forwards to score from play in the second half. Johnny Glynn kept showing for the ball, but Canning, Flynn, Pádraig Mannion and Cyril Donnellan were completely marginalised. Andy Smith too made no impact and David Burke, who played really well, was ploughing a lone furrow in the middle of the field.

To compound matters, Kilkenny had 14 points, and just two wides, from their 16 shots on goal - an exceptional return which left Galway with no margin for error at the other end. They couldn't afford any of the five wides they accumulated, and dropping three balls short into Eoin Murphy's hand didn't help the cause either. Outscored 0-14 to 1-4, with the goal coming in injury time, says it all about how comprehensively they were outplayed in that second half.

The free missed by Joe Canning in the 62nd minute, when there were still just three points between the sides, was a talking point among Galway supporters afterwards. With the gap back to two, and the crowd getting into it, maybe Galway might have driven on, had it gone over. But I think that's wishful thinking. Kilkenny had a vice-like grip on the match at that stage, and when the gap went out to four a minute later, it was merely a matter of how big the final margin was going to be.

Looking back on the year, despite all the retirements, and injuries, Kilkenny retained their title without ever having to overextend themselves.

They beat Wexford at their ease, had seven points to spare over Galway in the Leinster final, and once TJ Reid's goal went in, always looked like keeping Waterford at arm's length. Yes, the first half mightn't have gone exactly to plan last Sunday, but there was an air of inevitability about the outcome with 15 minutes to go.

That's a sobering thought for the chasing pack, and somehow after what happened in 2013, the Cats will be back seeking another three-in-a-row in 2016.

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