Friday 23 February 2018

Martin Breheny: We're being told that Galway are comfortably ahead but it could be an optical illusion

Galway praises sung to the heavens by same pundits who will say 'I told you so' if they lose

Galway’s captain David Burke lifts the Bob O’Keeffe Cup aloft with President Michael D Higgins. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Galway’s captain David Burke lifts the Bob O’Keeffe Cup aloft with President Michael D Higgins. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Micheál Donoghue has the look of a good poker player. Dealt four kings and eyeing an opponent who appears unimpressed by his cards, the Galway manager's reaction would probably be: 'This guy is up to something - he might have four aces.'

If Donoghue were holding a poor hand - say a pair of threes - he would most likely think: 'Not good, but your man with the smile might only have a pair of deuces.'

The cards are tumbling nicely for Donoghue right now, so well in fact that there might even be a suspicion of collusion among the gods to mark the deck in his favour.

As for the experts who have gathered around the table, they appear happy to tell everyone that Galway are on an unstoppable roll.

Those of us who are somewhat more sceptical and who point out that it's actually pretty much the same hand that was beaten in recent years are drowned out by the acclaim for Galway 2017.

The 'suitably impressed' brigade is comprised mostly of former players and managers, now operating in media pundit country. They have been at their eulogising best since last Sunday's Leinster final, laying out a string of reasons why Liam MacCarthy will be wintering out west.

Perhaps they're right, but I suspect that Donoghue will have concerns over the sweeping tide of opinion backing Galway, in case it infiltrates the camp.

I could have sworn I heard sheep bleating G-A-L-W-A-Y G-A-L-W-A-Y as a background to Mike McCartney's report from Athenry Mart on Monday's 'Drivetime' programme on RTé as he asked local farmers about the hurlers.

Confidence abounded, which is to be expected. It's when you hear pundits from across the country talking of how there's something different about Galway this year and why the 29-year wait for an All-Ireland title is about to end that you begin to wonder.

What's all the conviction based on? Victory over a Tipperary team that travelled to the Gaelic Grounds in body only for the Allianz League final in April?

Or is it Leinster Championship wins over Dublin, who have regressed in recent seasons, Offaly, who are at their lowest for decades and Wexford, an improving force but not yet at a stage where they can beat Kilkenny and Galway in successive championship games?

Like Mayo footballers, Galway hurlers have been in the top three in recent seasons, without pushing on to No 1. Obviously, the longer a team hangs around the top table the more likely it is to get the best seat, so Galway started the year with a good chance of All-Ireland glory.

Winning the league and Leinster titles has further enhanced Galway's claims, but that's all. Even then, there's something unsatisfactory about winning Leinster without beating Kilkenny.

Of course they beat the team that beat Kilkenny, but that's not quite the same and certainly not for Galway, who badly needed a big success against Cody's boys.

The reality for Galway is that they have not been tested since launching their drive to their current exalted status as 13/8 All-Ireland favourites by recovering from a 10-point deficit to beat Waterford in the league quarter-final in early April.

Limerick were tame in the semi-final and Tipperary utterly supine in the final. Galway beat Dublin, Offaly and Wexford by a combined total of 42 points in Leinster but what did they learn?

All three set up defensively, packing at least one and sometimes two extra men in their own half. It made goalscoring difficult for Galway but the Leinster trio were unable to block the long-range bombardment. Hence Galway's 28 points against Dublin, 33 against Offaly and 29 against Wexford.

Impressive shooting, but it will be much different from now on against opposition who won't be as accommodating in the middle third. At the other end, the Galway defence wasn't really tested by undermanned forward lines. What happens when they meet opposition who play with a full attacking complement?

They may cope well, of course, but until such time as the test comes, there's no way of knowing. It's that uncertainty which makes the rush to claim that Galway are an altogether different proposition this year difficult to understand.

Legitimate question marks were raised against the Galway defence in the bigger tests over recent years and with Paul Killeen out for the season after injuring his knee against Dublin in late May, there's still a doubt about their overall solidity.

Galway are certainly ahead of the rest now because they have reached the All-Ireland semi-final. However, it's not like a race where they can continue to extend their lead.

Instead, they must stop while other contenders give chase. There are some big beasts snarling through the jungle, eyes firmly fixed on the All-Ireland semi-finals and, by August 6, when Galway return to Croke Park, the landscape will have changed significantly.

This year's championship is like one of those horses races where the field divides into two groups on either side of the track. It's mighty difficult to decide which side is leading until fairly close to home.

Right now, Galway, Cork and Clare are on one rail, with Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford and Dublin on the other. We're being told that Galway are comfortably ahead but it could be merely an optical illusion.

The reality is that when the field is eventually cut to four charging for the finish line the earlier part of the race will be largely irrelevant.

The Galway squad know that. And they know too that many of those who are now singing their praises will lead the 'same old Galway' refrain if they don't win the All-Ireland. Any wonder Donoghue keeps a poker face?

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