Saturday 24 March 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Tooled-up Tribesmen have all the weaponry to push Kilkenny to limit

Kilkenny don't usually lose close games and Fennelly and Fogarty can give them the edge, says Jamesie O'Connor

Michael Fennelly and Conor Fogarty have the power in midfield to swing a close game Kilkenny’s way
Michael Fennelly and Conor Fogarty have the power in midfield to swing a close game Kilkenny’s way

Jamesie O'Connor

It was hard not to be blown away by the performance given by the All-Ireland champions in Nowlan Park two weeks ago, with their 24-point winning margin over a Wexford side that everyone expected to be competitive at the very least. All the questions and doubts raised before the game about Kilkenny were emphatically answered. In defence, they could point to a clean sheet, holding the opposition's key forward scoreless, and an impressive start in the number three jersey by Joey Holden. In attack, they looked as potent and menacing as ever, with five goals. And they enjoyed complete dominance at midfield. All this with both Colin Fennelly and Richie Power still to be added to the mix.

All in all, you'd have to say a good day's work. And all things considered, a good result for Galway. Kilkenny were always going to win, but the manner of the display means the genie is out of the bottle. Anthony Cunningham, who made the trip to see Kilkenny first hand, will have returned with a singular message. Galway need to tool up and be ready, because everything they have will be required to get a result this afternoon.

There is zero chance of Kilkenny sleepwalking into another Leinster final ambush, as happened in 2012. Deep down, the Galway players would have known that was a scenario that was never likely to arise anyway. But nothing concentrates the mind more when you have reached a provincial or All-Ireland decider than seeing the opposition pulverise their opponents in the other semi-final.

Some part of why Kilkenny appear primed to the extent they are this early in the summer has to do with Galway's progression through the other half of the draw. They have weaponry that few other sides possess, and which has to be respected, especially when they are right, as seems to be the case this summer. Kilkenny know that and, on the evidence of the Wexford match, they have prepared accordingly.

If Galway almost paid the price for some wayward shooting and atrocious use of the ball in the drawn match with Dublin, on balance I thought they were the better side. Their work rate and application was good, and the extra game was always going to bring them on. The manner in which they blew the Dubs away in the replay - drawing their half-forward line out and giving the talent in their inside line the opportunities to inflict real damage with fast, early ball - was particularly impressive, because it signalled that some of the previous mistakes were being rectified. The challenge of Laois, which was a real banana skin, next time out was handled with aplomb. So, with three, rather than just one competitive game under their belts, there is no comparison with Galway's degree of readiness for the challenge Kilkenny represent, compared to a year ago, when morale was on the floor after barely scraping past Cheddar Plunkett's side.

The three games have also allowed Cunningham to settle on his best available 15 - and the benefits of playing together as a unit have been visible in the steadily improved performance from game to game. That's something that shouldn't be underestimated. The fact that they have already played that first game with Dublin in Croke Park is another added bonus, because it has given the younger, inexperienced players, such as Pádraig Mannion and John Hanbury, valuable big-game experience there. That helps. Taking Kilkenny on in Croke Park is a stressful experience for any young player. The fact that they are not facing into it without ever having played there at this level is one less headache for Anthony Cunningham to worry about.

Henry Shefflin, Kilkenny, shows his dissapointment after the match. Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final, Kilkenny v Galway, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE
Henry Shefflin, Kilkenny, shows his dissapointment after the match. Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final, Kilkenny v Galway, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

How those two rookies in the Galway full-back line cope with the movement and intensity the Kilkenny forwards bring will be central to whether the Tribesmen can pull it off. Wexford decided to go man to man at the back in the semi-final and paid a heavy price for it. Positions meant absolutely nothing and they found themselves dragged all over the field, with wave after wave of Kilkenny attacks coming at them. Eoin Larkin drifted out the field, leaving TJ Reid and Ger Aylward in a two-man full-forward line. However, there were times when they played with only one inside, and the space that created, with runners coming off the shoulder and from deep, meant Kilkenny players had options every time they had the ball, and Wexford could not cope.

It is a high-risk strategy and while Mannion has the pace, athleticism and defensive instincts required to play that game, I am not sure Hanbury and Iarla Tannian at centre-back do. Therein lies the quandary for Cunningham. Does he back himself to get the match-ups right - for example, Daithi Burke on Richie Hogan, Mannion on TJ Reid or Colin Fennelly, Tannian on Walter Walsh - and go man to man at the back, with the risk that entails? Or does he play an extra defender, allow Tannian to hold the middle as a sweeper and resolve that, whatever else, they are not going to concede goals?

The last thing Galway will want to hand Kilkenny is the luxury of being able to play a sweeper themselves in front of Joey Holden. But that is exactly what will happen if they go with a seventh defender, or bring someone out to pick up Larkin in the middle third. With Joe Canning on the edge of the square, Galway will want to go for the jugular themselves. Putting pressure on Holden and Jackie Tyrrell in the Kilkenny full-back line and getting an early goal will be high on their list of priorities.

So the tactical battle alone, and how both sides go about imposing their will on the opposition, will be fascinating to watch.

Jackie looked leaner than ever in the semi-final, and his ability to read the game, cover his full-back and pick up the breaks remains undiminished. Galway, though, have suspicions about his pace. Spreading the field, isolating him in space and getting quick ball in to allow whoever he is marking to take him on will have to feature heavily in the playbook.

But exposing whatever chinks may be there is something that is easier said than done, and Jason Flynn, with the raw pace he possesses, is a loss in that sense. Cody too will know Galway's intentions. The Kilkenny forwards will be expected to destroy the quality of ball being delivered, while the half-backs and midfielders sit deep to afford that full-back line the maximum protection.

With both sides adopting broadly similar tactics - wing-forwards tracking deep into their own half of the field, especially on the opposition puckout - and trying to deny space at one end, while creating it at the other, it may come down to who gets the better start, the early goals, and who has to chase the game and come from behind.

That to my mind is Galway's best chance. If it becomes a game of chicken to see who blinks first, the odds favour Kilkenny. That is when discipline and experience is required, and they have shown so many times that ability to brazen it out and break the opposition's will in the last quarter.

A week ago, I would have put the house on Kilkenny. But the closer the game gets, the bigger the chance I think Galway have. There wasn't a huge amount between the sides a year ago. Cyril Donnellan is back, the form of Jonathan Glynn and Andy Smith has been good and both Cathal Mannion and Canning are potential match winners. Galway can feel confident they have closed that gap considerably. Without JJ Delaney - and don't underestimate the fillip that gives the opposition - and no Richie Power or Henry Shefflin, the same fear and trepidation playing Kilkenny isn't likely to be there. If the Tribesmen bring a performance, they know they have every chance.

It's also conceivable that Kilkenny aren't as good as they looked against Wexford; that Galway will blitz them and go on to win by ten points. My dad and some of my uncles would love that. Exiled in Clare, we haven't been able to banish all the Galway blood out of them!

Joe Canning, Galway
Joe Canning, Galway

What's more likely, though, is a genuine battle, one that goes right down to the wire. They are the games Kilkenny don't usually lose, and because I think Michael Fennelly and Conor Fogarty will give them the edge at midfield, I'm siding, hesitantly, with the champions.

If there's a player with the potential to fill that gap left by JJ Delaney's departure, it's Joey Holden SPORTSFILE
If there's a player with the potential to fill that gap left by JJ Delaney's departure, it's Joey Holden SPORTSFILE

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