Tuesday 12 December 2017

'Magnificent Seven' trying to hunt down Cody's team for all seasons

Cats still set the standard but it is a long time since so many ambitious pursuers had a genuine chance of breaking stranglehold

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The other contenders won't tell Kilkenny or Galway what they really think but it goes like this.

"If we were in Galway's boots in last year's All-Ireland final, we'd be champions now. Kilkenny didn't have to do anything special to win because at half-time Galway rounded up their most destructive demons and invited them out with them for the second half. Any wonder their ambitions were scorched in a black-and-amber hell?"

That was the view in Tipperary, Clare, Cork, Limerick and Dublin last September and it hasn't changed.

Kilkenny won the title without playing any of that five so it's understandable that they feel they would have done better against Cody's men than Wexford, Waterford and Galway (twice).

Waterford also believe that they would be much improved if they got a second chance against Kilkenny. As for Galway, they know they blew an excellent chance of ending the long wait for an All-Ireland title.

Just in case they need a reminder, it comes in the form of the second-half statistics, which show that they scored only four points in normal time before Joe Canning squeezed in a goal from a free in the final minute.

However inspirational Jackie Tyrrell's half-time speech may have been, it can't be credited with influencing the second half so much that Kilkenny outscored Galway by 0-14 to 0-4 in normal time.


Granted, Kilkenny raised their game, just as Galway dropped theirs, especially in attack, where Conor Whelan, an 18-year-old playing his third senior championship game, was the only one to show true grit.

Galway's overall decline had nothing to do with Kilkenny but rather with the Tribesmen's inability to maintain an even performance level for a full game, a problem that has afflicted them for a long time.

At the start of a new season, the big question surrounding Galway is whether they will press on or regress. The successful, if rather tasteless, rebellion against Anthony Cunningham suggests that the squad - or rather a majority of them - blamed the manager for the defeat.

However much they reject that assessment- claiming instead that their objections were based on cumulative issues over a longer period of time - the indisputable reality is that if Galway won the All-Ireland final, Cunningham would still be in charge.

Revolting against a manager that led a side into a leading position at half-time in the final is questionable enough, but it would be unthinkable for them to have mutinied if Liam MacCarthy was wintering out west.

New manager Micheál Donoghue has inherited a squad that has put itself under enormous pressure, since anything less than an All-Ireland win this year will be regarded as failure.

Donoghue will ignore all that's gone before, instead concentrating on applying his own stamp, but he's still in a more difficult position than any of the other new managers, who are starting with a clean slate.

History is not on Galway's side either as it shows that they tend to do badly after losing an All-Ireland final.

It happened in 1991, '94, '02, '06 and2013. Indeed, the drop was especially noticeable in '06, when they put up a feeble effort against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland quarter-final, and in 2013 where they were stretched close to breaking point by Laois before being picked off by Dublin and Clare.

Of course if Galway were to harness the overall 2015 championship experience, which had its very good days too, in a really positive way there's no reason why they shouldn't be ultra-competitive in the enduring battle to dislodge Kilkenny.

That also applies to Tipperary, Waterford, Clare, Cork, Limerick and Dublin. Wexford have their ambitions too but a 9th placed finish (third in 1B) last year remains an accurate reflection of their current standing, with Offaly and Laois further back.

It's a flaw in the Championship system that a team can win the All-Ireland by beating only two of the other top seven contenders, as happened with Kilkenny last year.

That's nothing to do with Kilkenny who will take on - and usually beat - whoever is put in front of them but it's a pity that the format doesn't include more games among the top contenders. Last summer/autumn would have benefited from a Kilkenny v Tipp or Kilkenny v Clare clash or indeed several other permutations, which would have energised the campaign.

Still, there was no mood for change when Croke Park asked counties for their views on the Championship last year, so we can expect the current structure to remain for the foreseeable future.

It means that the All-Ireland remains wedded to the Munster and Leinster championships model, even if the latter is no longer confined to counties from the province.

How can it be called the Leinster Championship when it welcomes 'guests' from the other three provinces? Galway are in permanent residence; Antrim were there for seven seasons before losing their place in the Liam MacCarthy tier.

And when that happened, they were replaced in Leinster by Kerry, who opted for the less competitive fields of the Leinster round robin, rather than staying down south.

If provincial boundaries mean so little that Leinster can accommodate Connacht, Ulster and Munster counties, why not break down all barriers and redesign a Championship which serves hurling's wider interests?

Brian Cody is among those who favour the abolition of the provincial championships, believing that a more inclusive system would be good for hurling.

Nonetheless, it's not going to happen any time soon - if indeed ever - so All-Ireland titles will continue to be won by teams that can land the big prize by playing as few as two of their biggest rivals.

For all that, hurling at the top end of the market is in a very healthy state. Kilkenny's dominance throughout the new Millennium might suggest otherwise but, at the start of a new season, they have seven serious rivals, with Wexford and Offaly trying to push on too.

Each of the seven is well equipped to take on the challenge of hunting down the Cats.

There may be day-to-day variations but, as a group, there's an evenness among them, which has left each convinced that they could be the ones to displace Kilkenny at the summit.


It means that eight counties have a realistic chance of winning the All-Ireland, something that does not apply in football where, at a stretch, seven (Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Mayo, Donegal, Monaghan, Tyrone) counties are in contention.

Proportionately, that's well behind hurling, which isn't nearly as strong as football in many counties.

The big test, of course, for all of Kilkenny's pursuers is how to close the psychological gap.

That hard-edged winning mentality, honed over years of success, has generated so much confidence in Kilkenny that they always expect to win. Conversely, opposition tend to fear the worst when games against Kilkenny are there to be won.

It happened to Galway last year and Tipperary in 2014 and will continue unless teams find a way of blocking out the past.

Kilkenny are not as good as they were some years ago but they still manage to shape games to their liking, imposing their will on the action to such a degree that opposition become spooked.

Working through that has to be the priority for their rivals.

The good thing from an overall hurling viewpoint is that there are so many counties lining up to test their case against Kilkenny.

It's a whole lot different to ten years ago when much fewer were in the chasing group. In fact, there's solid reason to believe that the spread between the top eight counties now is smaller now than for a very long time.

All of which points to a fascinating season, starting this weekend.

Irish Independent

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