Canning must finally deliver against Cats if Tribesmen are to make it a contest
Galway are a coming force but ruthless Kilkenny can expose defensive flaws, says Jamesie O'Connor
If the portents were ominous after the hammering Kilkenny dished out to Cork in the league final, the subsequent demolition job they inflicted on Dublin a fortnight ago has cast a dark pall over the entire hurling championship.
The Cats look to be in a different class to everyone else. Faster, stronger, harder -- and worryingly, if anything, the gap to the chasing pack seems to be widening. On the way home from Portlaoise, after witnessing Dublin's collapse, a friend who genuinely loves his hurling rang me to lament that it was only June 23 and, in his eyes, the 2012 championship was already over.
I'm sure the Tipperary players don't share that view, and I hope Anthony Cunningham's new-look Galway side doesn't see it that way either. While the task facing them this afternoon is truly massive, there is enough evidence to suggest that Galway are at least heading in the right direction, and in the medium term at least, arguably the one best equipped to join Tipperary as legitimate contenders to Kilkenny's throne.
How far they have travelled will be clearer after today, but while they'd obviously love to beat Kilkenny this year, if given a choice, I'm sure they'd prefer it to be in August or September rather than this afternoon in early July.
When Brian Cody started ten of last September's All-Ireland-winning side and had four more of them on the field before the 70 minutes were up in the Walsh Cup final in February, it was clear he wanted to send a message to the Galway management and players. Of course it was also a nod to the potential threat he sees a confident and rejuvenated Galway posing. Better to destroy any hope, confidence or well-being the positive start to the season had brought and maintain the psychological stranglehold Kilkenny have had over the Tribesmen since losing the All-Ireland semi-final in 2005.
If that wasn't enough, the humiliating 25-point defeat inflicted in Nowlan Park in the league was another rocket into the Galway psyche. Then, the Kilkenny forwards feasted on some dreadful mistakes in the Galway full-back line, which meant the game was over after 20 minutes. For the younger players on the Galway team, being on the receiving end of two serious trimmings where they shipped a combined 5-46 mightn't be such a bad thing. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and having seen at close quarters how the best team in the country operates, they now know the level they have to get to in order to compete. It should also concentrate the Galway minds as to just what Kilkenny are capable of doing to them if they aren't fully focussed on the job.
To be fair to Anthony Cunningham, he's aware of what's needed, and seems to be ticking a lot of the right boxes. Galway's strength and conditioning wasn't where it should have been last year, but they looked very fit and strong last time out and appear to have the work done in that department. That in itself should bring a degree of confidence, because at least if you have the work done, it gives you a chance. The young players he has picked today all have size, physique and, more importantly, the ability to win their own ball. In addition, there's no shortage of pace, another important attribute required against Kilkenny, in the Galway attack.
Conor Cooney was the stand-out performer against Offaly, causing mayhem early on, but Niall Burke at centre-forward showed consistently during the league that he too has the talent to prosper at this level. David Burke impressed last season and both Damien Hayes and Cyril Donnellan appear to have the pep back in their step as well.
Of course, to break Kilkenny down, Galway really need Joe Canning to rediscover his best form. Arguably fitter than he's ever been, I think we'll see a big summer from him yet. If Galway are to unlock Kilkenny and get the goals needed to have any realistic chance, Canning is the key. Apart from the odd flash of brilliance he hasn't really done it against the Cats. With the calibre of opposition he has been up against, that's an easy statement to make, but for a player of his talent and ability, it's still something he needs to address. No better place to start than this afternoon.
On the goal theme, it was clearly evident against Dublin in the relegation play-off replay and against Westmeath and Offaly in the championship that Galway are looking to get goals. They played a more direct style, were running hard at defenders, breaking tackles and heading straight for the posts. That mindset is hugely important because as we saw when Cork crucially failed to register a green flag against Tipp a fortnight ago, if you're not used to regularly going looking for goals, you're not going to get them.
At midfield, while I'm not convinced Iarla Tannian and Andy Smith would have the engines to live with Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice for 70 minutes, they have a better chance of coping against the less experienced Cillian Buckley and Paddy Hogan.
So while from midfield up, Galway appear to be taking shape, defensively they still appear to have a way to go. The concession of 4-12 against Westmeath and 3-15 to Offaly -- sides who don't have anything like the potency in attack that Kilkenny possess -- obviously doesn't bode well. Admittedly some of those goals were conceded late on, with the games well and truly won, but that mental slackness is in stark contrast to the way today's opponents operate.
With less than ten minutes left in Portlaoise a fortnight ago, with Dublin dead and buried, the Kilkenny defenders were still harrying their men remorselessly. When a Dublin attack broke down after one of their players was penalised for overcarrying, Jackie Tyrrell was punching the air, epitomising the competitiveness and sheer relentlessness that Kilkenny bring to bear. Tellingly, as they trotted back to their positions, I counted nine Cats jerseys inside the Kilkenny 21-yard line. While it's not quite on a par with the Donegal footballers, that commitment to getting back and closing down the space tells you their defensive mindset.
Considering they have only lost one championship match in the last six years, to a team that put four goals past them, not allowing the opposition a sniff at goal is high on the priority list, and that discipline and defensive excellence makes them very, very difficult to break down.
In contrast, while the Galway backs are all good hurlers in their own right, I just don't think they defend well enough. In particular I'm not sure Johnny Coen and Kevin Hynes at full-back have the defensive skills and instincts required to contain Kilkenny, given the hard questions the likes of Henry Shefflin, Richie Power and Eoin Larkin are likely to ask. With that in mind, Cunningham may be tempted to play an extra defender to at least contain Kilkenny early on. While such a move is understandable, it surrenders the initiative to Kilkenny, and Galway might have as much success deploying their midfielders deeper and making sure their half-forwards work back at every opportunity.
With the players Kilkenny have on the bench and with Fennelly and JJ Delaney sure to come back into the team as well, we can expect them to play to their usual standards. The hope is that Galway play close to their best as well. If they do, we'll have a contest. Where the champions are concerned, that would suffice for me this afternoon.
Kilkenny will win, but Galway will learn from the exercise, and are still likely to have a big say in the championship before the year is out.
Sunday Indo Sport