Wednesday 22 November 2017

All not lost for Tribe if they learn from errors

Tipp have shown that a defeat to Kilkenny can become a catalyst, says Damian Lawlor

David Burke thinks about what might have been as he watches Kilkenny collect the Liam MacCarthy Cup
David Burke thinks about what might have been as he watches Kilkenny collect the Liam MacCarthy Cup

IN the end the curtain fell swiftly. A referee's whistle sounded a nanosecond too soon; the butt of a post proved an inch too thick and a second of madness saw Galway's chief target man walk the line.

All of this, within a pulsating five-minute spell on the biggest day of the hurling season, cost Galway any chance of a famous win. Cold-eyed observers, however, would argue that such a view is fanciful. They could demonstrate any number of clips illustrating how Galway chased the game from the start or produce stats that proved Kilkenny lorded the possession stakes.

However, analysis shouldn't be so blunt. The truth is that Galway hadn't even hurled well but still only trailed Kilkenny by five points in the 44th minute. By the time the 49th minute came, two missed goal chances and Cyril Donnellan's red card had put the game beyond them. Instead of being a point ahead, they remained five down.

Throw in an injured goalkeeper and a ligament injury that prevented their marquee player, Joe Canning, from training for 10 days before the decider and you get a more rounded explanation of why they didn't perform.

"Ah, it's all wishful thinking now," says one of the Galway players. "The truth is -- and I can't speak for the rest of the lads -- I knew we were in big trouble when Cyril got the line.

"We'd been shocking enough in the first half but they weren't out of sight and we were starting to go at them again. Cyril would obviously have been crucial to our plans and he'd been playing well. Seeing him go off, seeing the ref disallow a goal and then having a ball come back off the post . . . the head drops a little."

Sniffing blood, Kilkenny went for the kill and tacked on five quick points.Galway, like Tipperary in the 2009 final, saw two gilt-edged goal chances go astray and then lost a man to a red card. Like Tipp again, they have no choice but to take it on the chin and come back stronger.

When they go looking for answers, they will discover that an 11-point beating is like a compass with the dial working overtime -- there are all sorts pointers to other routes they should have taken. For instance, there was surely a few moves their management could have made to ensure a better showing.

They could have put the tight-marking Fergal Moore on Shefflin and at the same time moved Tony óg Regan back to mark the 6' 4" Wally Walsh. Physically, Regan would have been more of a match for Walsh than Johnny Coen who had struggled against him at underage level.

Maybe Galway's two goals camouflaged things a little -- and delayed changes from being made -- but it's surprising that Anthony Cunningham didn't act early. After all, he made a very brave call in the drawn game, dragging Conor Cooney ashore not long after sending him on as a substitute when he felt Cooney hadn't reached the pace of the game quickly enough.

The selectors should have reacted just as quickly last Sunday when it was clear their team's work rate and touch had dipped. They didn't win enough rucks and around the middle third they surrendered possession too easily. Their half-backs and midfield coughed up five soft points, allowing Kilkenny to burst to their sixth title in seven years.

As with Tipperary over the past four years, it beggars belief that Kilkenny could visibly be so much hungrier than their opponents after all they have won. Before the game much was said about Joe Canning's pre-match comments on the opposition but it wasn't a factor. "The general feeling is that Joe was left out there with those headlines," one player says. "Joe made comments but he didn't mean anything like what was portrayed in the media. And I think everyone realised that."

Both teams simply focused on hurling. And while two early Galway goals must have put doubts in Kilkenny's heads, Tommy Walsh was already launching a successful attack after their first goal which led to an instant Kilkenny point.

And just moments after Galway rattled the net for the second time, Cody's men replied with a goal of their own. It means there was no momentum whatsoever for the Connacht side from those three-pointers.

Thus, the trend of the starting Galway forwards failing to spark continued. Four of them didn't raise a flag in the drawn game and last Sunday the team's first point from play came from midfielder Andy Smith three minutes after the break.

Canning finally became the first forward to score a point from play in the 72nd minute. Again only two of Galway's starting attackers scored; a shocking indictment of a team with its resources. Damien Hayes, in fairness, while he didn't raise a flag, had another fine game, working hard to secure ball, laying it off intelligently and unselfishly handpassing to Burke for their second goal.

Yet, whenever Hayes got the ball he was swarmed by two to three Kilkenny defenders and was inevitably forced backwards.

"Yeah, they brought a severity to the way they closed out our men in possession, and we got very little time on the ball, particularly around the middle third," Cunningham said. "When they broke from the middle third, they could use it efficiently, so that's part and parcel of the process, and what we have to improve on."

Then there were the injuries. Canning damaged knee ligaments in training with over a week to go to the replay. Although he hit nine points, and almost dragged his team back with the shot that rebounded off the post, he probably wouldn't have started had it been any other game.

The county's medical team of Dr Dan Murphy and physio Jerry Reilly worked hard to get him ready and under the circumstances Canning did well. It would have been a calamity to start the game without

him, but as Henry Shefflin discovered in 2010, an All-Ireland cauldron is no place for a ligament injury.

Likewise, everyone now realises that the decision to play James Skehill backfired. The 24-year-old is hugely improved but he had no use

of his catching (left) arm after dislocating his shoulder in training the Friday before the replay.

It was popped back into place in hospital where he was pumped with morphine. Fourteen hours later, he had a fitness test at Abbey-Duniry but once he could stand he was always going to try and make the replay. Equally, team management wanted him to play.

But from the initial puck-out it was clear Skehill was in pain. He opted to bat down and kick away the first ball that came his way and later admitted that had he been fully fit he would have caught it. Not long after he could only parry away an Eoin Larkin shot which then fell to Richie Power who scored the first Kilkenny goal from that rebound.

It was a huge pity for the player -- and more importantly the team -- that injury struck at such an important juncture. Minutes before the break, he intimated that he was done. It's a credit to his understudy Fergal Flannery that he did so well.

That's the hard luck stories and injuries out of the way. Once the sores heal, they will acknowledge the reality. Kilkenny owned the ball for long stages and had six different scorers from play before Galway had one. Brian Cody was cuter with his match-ups and he had Galway running after his team from the off.

Brian Hogan was superb throughout. Niall Burke didn't get a sniff and that was another Galway forward out of the game. JJ Delaney stayed at full-back and wasn't dragged away from his post. There's a lot to learn. But if they pay heed Galway should come back stronger.

"Ah, everyone is saying that but next year seems a long way off right now," says another player. It does, but they will have gained hugely from playing in two senior finals. Eighteen members of the squad are under 21 and, if they can get more from their attack, they will remain contenders.

Sport nearly always offers the opportunity for redemption.

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