Saturday 24 March 2018

Uncertainties at the back will concern Galway most

Tribesmen have lacked consistency in defence and Tipp's slick attack will provide stern test

John Hanbury finds himself roughly where Ronan Burke did last a year ago, only in Croke Park on a bigger day
John Hanbury finds himself roughly where Ronan Burke did last a year ago, only in Croke Park on a bigger day

Dermot Crowe

The point is fast approaching when no Galway player will have been alive when his county were All-Ireland senior hurling champions. The 25-year jubilee has come and gone for the men of 1988. Players have moved on after unconsummated careers - Joe Rabbitte, Eugene Cloonan, Damien Hayes, a host of others - players whose names were inked on the losing narrative, who did all they could and never quite enough.

Twenty-seven years and counting, the last expedition going up in smoke over the course of 20 minutes in Thurles last year. A six-point lead that turned into a nine-point deficit. Outscored 2-10 to 0-1 in that time. Some say fatigue, others rubbish that as another lame excuse. Galway were playing their third match in 13 days, granted, but Kilkenny won the Leinster final the next day in fine style, looking none the worse for having hurled three games in 14 days.

The Tipp game of July 5, 2014, ushering Galway out of the championship at the earliest point in the calendar since the dawn of the qualifiers, has had its impact in the longer term. Seamus Callanan embellished his career goals haul with three that day and if not all were the result of Ronan Burke's defending, then it is there that Burke's trial as the team's full-back came to an end. For the first goal, early in the match, Callanan was being marked by Fergal Moore. At least, with the way Tipp forwards move, Moore was the closest to him at the time. Burke was there for the next two, but the second of those came from an interception. Whatever way you want to look at it, for the second year in succession, Galway went into the league looking for a new full-back.

You need to wind back to the last successful team of the 1980s to find the stability and reliance that Conor Hayes once provided, but that kind of security of tenure is rare, not just in Galway, now. The game has changed and requires greater mobility and versatility and Galway's search for a full-back has been accompanied by a search for a centre-back for many of those lost years. At the start of 2014, they settled on Iarla Tannian and have more or less stayed with him. There are concerns over Tannian's grasp of the position's fundamentals, and his lung capacity, but he has experience and some presence.

In the full-back line, John Hanbury finds himself roughly where Burke did a year ago, only in Croke Park and on an even bigger day. And with Callanan a more confident and proven big-day player, last year's championship top-scorer, will the management have the nerve to trust Hanbury with the task?

Going into 2013 as defending Leinster champions, Galway had Kevin Hynes at full-back, but he lost it after the provincial final defeat to Dublin when Paul Ryan had a field day. The All-Ireland quarter-final against Clare saw a host of changes and they resumed the season after with Burke, from Turloughmore, in the position. They ran with that throughout the league and abandoned it after the championship.

"Ronan Burke is my own club," says the former Galway hurler, Cathal Moore. "I thought he had a very good year. I don't think it's fair to judge him on the 20 minutes against Tipperary. Somebody taller was needed, he was giving away a few inches to Callanan, but as we saw later, it was no shame to concede a big score to Seamus Callanan. He (Burke) hasn't featured at all this year."

Hynes pulled out of the squad some weeks ago after finding himself increasingly peripheral and the current incumbent, Hanbury, heads into a match much as Burke did, due to face Callanan, game but short of experience. "I suppose people are expecting him to fail, but I think he has coped well, taking into account his age and inexperience," states Moore. "They have met a good Kilkenny forward line and Tipp's will be equally as good. I think they have done quite well in fairness. He is tigerish and has a lot of the characteristics of a good full-back. He is very competitive fella. He also played football and has that kind of, I would say, competitiveness in the tackle from football, though he may go overboard at some times."

The primary concern for Galway today, even though Moore is confident, surrounds how their defence will manage against a fleet-footed and slick Tipperary attack. The concern being less about Galway not scoring enough, and more that they may concede too much. Since Conor Hayes played against Tipp in the 1989 All-Ireland semi-final, Galway have used 16 different full-backs in the championship. No player has come along and really commanded or been given the time to make it his own.

"My hope is he (Hanbury) is not discarded after a year," says Moore, whose brother, Fergal, has also had time in the role. "They need to be given a chance over a couple of seasons. I thought Ronan Burke had real potential. I would say that that is Galway's biggest problem. I can only think of a few Kilkenny players who came into their team after minor and under 21; everyone else has had to serve their time, including the likes of TJ Reid and Richie Hogan. That is what we have to change in Galway. We need to allow time to let players develop.

"A young lad taken off completely loses his confidence. We have lost a lot of players like that over the years. That is not good enough. They are hurling since seven, for maybe 17 years and next thing they are discarded on a whim. That is the problem I would have."

But Moore sees an upward shift in work rate among the forwards and the return to full fitness of David Burke and Cyril Donnellan has given the team added impetus. Players like Jason Flynn and Cathal Mannion are blossoming in their second year, even if there is a caveat attached to Mannion's points spread against Cork because of the room afforded, which bore little reality to what he can expect today, or most days. Pádraig Mannion is heading for Young Hurler of the Year if he can maintain the form he has shown so far.

The changes have been happening both sides of the line. There was a time when Anthony Cunningham's track record wouldn't have got him a third year, let alone a fifth, but a certain degree of restraint and patience has also visited the county board and the committee rooms. Several managers have felt hard done by on that score in the past, but Cunningham is the first to benefit from a more composed approach. His three-year term expired last year and has been extended by two.

After 2013, the Leinster final loss and All-Ireland quarter-final defeat by Clare, Cunningham cut ties with two of the men who had been part of the successful All-Ireland under 21 campaign of 2011. First, Mattie Kenny exited, then Tom Helebert. Eugene Cloonan and Damien Curley have stepped into the void. The issue in 2013, less pronounced in year one, was a clash of personalities and ideas, with Kenny, Helebert and Cunningham looking at things too differently. This led to excessive pluralism in selection and methods of preparations.

But that period is already starting to feel remote. Only six of the team that lined out in the All-Ireland final replay in 2012 started against Cork in the recent quarter-final win. That's why spiteful regard for Tipperary, voiced in some quarters during the past week, has a ring of artificiality to it. There is none of the visceral dislike that characterised meetings in the 1980s up to that famous Helebert-inspired win over a hotly-fancied Premier in 1993. There are some slights to draw on. In 2010, the key season-changer for Tipp en route to winning the MacCarthy Cup was their thrilling finish in overcoming Galway with three late points in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Galway were, still are, sore over Ollie Canning's injury and departure, which weakened their resistance during the critical final moments.

Last year, they were beaten fair and square, but the memory is still bright and tees up the unpalatable prospect of a third championship exit to Tipp since the start of the decade. Galway have some steam built up, heading into their sixth match in the championship, and a shortish break of three weeks since their last, compared to Tipp's five since winning Munster.

"I think the momentum is with Galway, I expect them to win," says Moore. "Playing Tipp is great; it is not a revenge thing, but that memory of Tipp beating them last year must be there."

Not quite the dander a Tipp shirt would stoke in Tony Keady once upon a time, but it all adds up when motivating a team on a day like this.

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