Monday 19 February 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Today is a day when gut instinct trumps logic

Galway have all the motivation they need to defy the odds, says Jamesie O’Connor

‘There are question marks over Joe Canning after he picked up a nasty hand injury in a recent challenge’
‘There are question marks over Joe Canning after he picked up a nasty hand injury in a recent challenge’

Jamesie O’Connor

If Limerick’s prize for victory last weekend, could at best be described as dubious — a home tie with a motivated, revenge-thirsty Tipperary — it’s an entirely different scenario facing Dublin and Galway this afternoon.

Victory, and Laois or Offaly stand between them and a place in the Leinster final. That’s not a foregone conclusion, but nonetheless a hurdle that should be negotiated, and one which would guarantee, at worst, competitive action and an All-Ireland quarter-final place on the last weekend in July. Defeat, and it’s the Russian roulette of the qualifiers.

That’s a place Galway, especially, don’t want to be. The draw wasn’t kind 12 months ago: Tipperary in Thurles. Season over before it began. And considering there will be three Munster sides in the opposite bowl when round one of that qualifier draw is made, the direct route looks by far the preferred option.

That’s what makes today such a massive game for both sides. As ever, no-one inside or outside their own county has a clue which Galway will turn up. We only have to rewind to 2014. An insipid, lacklustre display, devoid of any inspiration, against Laois, had us all writing them off. Yet, a week later, a storming comeback in the last quarter, and they’re neck and neck with Kilkenny dipping for the line. A mediocre display in the replay; the inevitable defeat, which they followed up with the biggest Jekyl and Hyde performance of the entire championship. Six points clear of Tipperary with 20 minutes remaining, and they end up losing by nine. Outscored 2-10 to a solitary point when the game was there to be won. How was that possible for a team that could have won the All-Ireland just two years previously?

The history books will show that Galway were also-rans in the context of last year’s championship. An after-thought.  Yet, both Tipperary and Kilkenny had enough rocky moments in those games to suggest they aren’t a million miles away either.

Typically, though, there was nothing in their league campaign this spring to suggest anything other than the same inconsistency. The same consistent inconsistency that has unfortunately become their hallmark. Admittedly, the way they hung in and ground out victory over what on paper was a strong Clare side on the opening weekend was impressive. And any win over Kilkenny, regardless of how depleted, has value. But their other performances didn’t reach those same levels, and the quarter-final display against Waterford simply wasn’t good enough.

Their cause this weekend isn’t helped by an ever-growing injury list either. Conor Cooney, Niall and David Burke would surely all have started in attack if fit, and there are question marks over Joe Canning as well after he picked up a nasty hand injury in a recent challenge match against Clare. At the back, Daithi Burke’s absence deprives Anthony Cunningham of arguably his most consistent defender in 2014. On the flip side, Cyril Donnellan returns after two injury-ravaged seasons, and that’s a significant boost.

With Jonathan Glynn, Cyril Donnellan, Canning, Jason Flynn and Cathal Mannion all starting in attack, it looks a potent enough unit, with what looks like a nice mix of size and skill. That hasn’t always translated into scores on the board, though. Too often in the past, they have been guilty of playing as individuals rather than for the team, and I don’t think they’ve found a way to fully utilise Glynn or Canning’s unique but different skill-sets. Address that, get players running off Glynn, get Canning, Mannion — who’s reportedly flying — and Flynn on the ball in the right areas, and I think there’s enough talent up front to get the required scores.

Whether they can keep them out at the other end or not may be a bigger issue. Once again, the league raised more questions than answers as to who will man the central defensive positions this summer. John Hanbury has been handed the full-back jersey, and while competent there during the league, Galway thought they had solved that problem too with Ronan Burke a year ago. His lack of pace, however, was exposed by Tipperary in Thurles, so it’s a big ask for the youngster on his debut, and especially in Croke Park, with another debutant Pádraig Mannion beside him.

With no obvious No 6 emerging either, Iarlaith Tannian is tasked with filling that gap. Tannian is good coming forward, but I’m not so sure about his instincts when he’s really required to defend. 

Having picked Ryan O’Dwyer, Liam Rushe and Danny Sutcliffe in his half-forward line, Ger Cunningham has gone all in on winning this key battleground. Because the form of Dublin’s inside forwards; Dotsy O’Callaghan, David Treacy and Mark Schutte, was so good during the league, if the Galway half-back line don’t curb Rushe and Sutcliffe in particular, it could mean a torrid afternoon for their full-back line.

But if Galway look weaker at the back than up front, the same charge can just as easily be levelled at the Dubs. The league was largely positive for them, but there were periods during games when the tide turned against them, and they appeared powerless to stop it. They were inexcusably hanging on at the end against a 13-man Kilkenny; were six points up in the second half against a 14-man Clare, and lost; and exited in the semi-final after allowing Cork to reel in what looked an insurmountable deficit. Those are the things that chip away at a team’s self-belief, so Dublin’s confidence may be more brittle than people think.

The odds favour the Dubs, especially with the players Galway are missing. Applying logic, there are too many question marks hanging over the Tribesmen. But that’s the time they tend to produce a performance.

Surely, sufficient soul-searching took place after the Waterford match, and the criticism they shipped, to drive them on. Throw in the fact they owe Dublin after losing in 2011, and taking a shelling in the 2013 Leinster final. If that’s not motivation enough, the potential consequences of defeat will surely mean Galway come ready to fight, and with the edge to their play that stunned Kilkenny in 2012.

Logic says Dublin. Gut instinct trumps logic today. Galway to win.

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