Sunday 9 December 2018

Tribe's physical edge will make things difficult for Kilkenny

Cats are in better shape for today's final but so are Galway

Kilkenny’s Walter Walsh takes on Gearóid McInerney in their earlier Leinster championship match. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Kilkenny’s Walter Walsh takes on Gearóid McInerney in their earlier Leinster championship match. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

With the Leinster round robin starting and finishing a week earlier, Kilkenny and Galway have had more time than their Munster counterparts - three weeks rather than two - to draw breath after the hectic nature and intensity of the group phase. When the longer gaps between games existed under the old system, no-one managed them better than Kilkenny.

Their formula of playing a round of county championship games on the weekend after the Leinster or All-Ireland semi-finals clearly worked for both the clubs and Brian Cody, and the management always allowed the players the leeway to let off a bit of steam afterwards.

It was down to business after that with three or four hard weeks' preparation for the next match. The benefits were twofold. Firstly, Cody made it his business to get to most, if not all, of the matches involving his panel. That gave anyone trying to break into the team, or even the match-day 24, the chance to catch his eye by performing for the club in a competitive environment. Holding your own on TJ Reid or getting a few scores off Jackie Tyrrell or Brian Hogan in the club championship wouldn't do your chances any harm.

Secondly, the team was picked on form and especially how you performed in those training matches in Nowlan Park. For anyone coming back from injury, or the younger players on the panel, that was your window of opportunity, and the intensity of those games was at least equal to anything they were likely to meet in the championship.

That's why I'm not convinced either Cody or Kilkenny are fans of the new system. There's no room for club games, which removes one avenue into the team or the squad. But with the emphasis on recovery given the games are so close, there's simply no scope to play those all-out training matches.

Not only does that make it harder to assess who might be finding or losing form, but it also makes it doubly difficult for anyone on the injury list to play themselves back into the team. Necessity meant that Richie Hogan and Colin Fennelly were both parachuted back into the first 15 for the Wexford match, but they were clearly off the pace. It nearly backfired, because they were both gone by half-time having made no impact.

That's why the three weeks have been so important for Kilkenny. Right now, TJ Reid and Walter Walsh are the only two certainties in the Kilkenny forward line. Ideally, if Hogan and Fennelly could get back to the levels they've played at in recent years, it would leave only two spots to be filled and a lot less inexperience on the field. The downside, however, is that when Cody looks to his bench, is there anybody there with the potential to change the course of the match as, for example, Hogan did to devastating effect when he came on in the second half of the 2015 Leinster final?

The answer is no, at least not yet. I'm not privy to what form, if any, that duo have shown in training over the last three weeks, but by opting to keep them in reserve, Kilkenny have a pair of experienced impact subs to call on.

Obviously Ger Aylward has shown some of the form he had in that All Star season in 2015, as has Billy Ryan, the bolter who Cody hands a championship debut to. Aylward will bring added strength and physicality, a nod to how they were dominated in Salthill, but don't doubt for a second the thought the Kilkenny management will have put into picking this team.

They have match-ups they ideally want to get and tactics they'll want to employ. When or if the game opens up in the second half, Cody now has a plethora of options on the bench: Hogan, Fennelly, Liam Blanchfield, John Donnelly and the pacy Luke Kirwan. It mightn't be quite the finished article just yet, but it's certainly a different unit to the one that was eaten alive in Salthill by the most physical team in the country

Galway's power, especially up the middle of their defence, means Kilkenny have to find a way to play around them. There was a time when they had the players to compete irrespective of the type of ball that was coming in. Those players aren't there anymore, so Kilkenny have to be more judicious about how they go about breaking Galway down.

We saw evidence of that during the league, but Micheál Donoghue's side applied so much pressure out the field in Salthill that they forced Kilkenny into the route-one tactics that will have zero chance of success today against Dáithí Burke, Gearóid McInerney and co. That's partly why Kilkenny failed to score a point from play in that second half, because the game was very much being played on Galway's terms

Kilkenny should be better prepared this time round. Croke Park will suit their younger players far more than the tighter confines of Salthill and they can take a lot of confidence from how they finally overhauled Wexford.

When it comes down to it, though, Galway haven't really had to stretch themselves yet in this year's championship, and they can win today without being at their best. They're in great shape, have a settled team along with the strength in depth, especially up front, that was once the hallmark of today's opponents. They'll win.

The margin, however, isn't likely to be as large as it was six weeks ago and they won't have it all their own way. Cody has been to 17 Leinster finals as a manager, and only ever lost once. The thought of a team from outside the province winning the Leinster Championship doesn't sit well in Kilkenny. I'd also imagine that the images of the late hits Burke and McInerney put in that pancaked Luke Scanlon and Walter Walsh respectively in Salthill have got an airing in the last three weeks.

That won't leave them short of motivation and they will take the fight to Galway. It won't be enough though.

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