Sport Hurling

Monday 11 December 2017

Different breed of Cats can evolve into another Cody beast

Jamsie O'Connor

New blood and hunger of old guard bode well for three-in-a-row bid, says Jamesie O'Connor

In 2009, Munster's Paul O'Connell addressed our club side a few days before a big game. Facing opponents who had knocked us out of the championship the previous year, one of our management asked him what advice he would give us facing the same team now. What he said resonated with me after the opening quarter last Sunday. He said that we had to let the opposition know, through our body language, attitude, demeanour, that this game was different, that they were facing a different team, a different atmosphere, and that message had to be driven home from the outset.

With two Galway players requiring treatment inside the first five minutes, Kilkenny players powering into every challenge and huge intensity evident in their play, it wasn't long into last Sunday's game before that message would have registered in the Galway minds. This was a different Kilkenny side. The aggression levels were higher and the tackling, in particular, noticeably harder, particularly from their forwards. In fact, four of Kilkenny's points inside the first 25 minutes resulted from Galway players being turned over in possession by the Cats attack.

Tactically, unlike the Leinster final and the first half of the drawn game, Kilkenny were the ones dictating the terms of engagement. The lessons had been learned. Their defence kept its shape, with defenders marking tightly, attacking the ball but never allowing themselves to get dragged needlessly out the field, as they had in the first half three weeks earlier.

The other big tactical adjustment was how far out the field the Kilkenny half-forwards were prepared to come, and how crowded they were prepared to make the middle third. I remember Eoin Larkin at one stage in the first half telling midfielder Cillian Buckley to sit deeper, and not worry about Iarla Tannian on the Galway puckout. Larkin would do the necessary covering if James Skehill went short. That tactical awareness, and communication, allowed the Kilkenny half-backs to sit further back, enabling the team to defend deeper.

Kilkenny also put a lot of thought into how they could get more out of their attack. On paper, giving Walter Walsh his debut at corner-forward appeared a big risk to take. But a couple of Kilkenny supporters I spoke to before the game pointed out that his size and strength had caused Johnny Coen problems at underage level before, and Brian Cody would have been aware of that. Because of his familiarity with Coen he'd also have been confident about his chances. That he scored 1-3 and walked off with the man of the match award was a bonus.

Starting Larkin on the wing also paid big dividends. His strength, direct running and experience had Niall Donoghue in trouble from the start, which meant the two rookies on the left flank of the Galway defence, who had been outstanding all year, had a much tougher day at the office.

With Michael Fennelly, Richie Hogan and Richie Power also raising their performance levels and Henry Shefflin as sharp and combative as he was the last day, it looked ominous for Galway from a very early stage.

With tactical superiority and a stranglehold on possession, it was like watching the Kilkenny of old. Galway couldn't generate any momentum or even get their hands on any decent ball, and even the two goals they scored in quick succession midway through the first half couldn't give them the impetus they needed. It's also testimony to Kilkenny's single-mindedness that their response was so emphatic each time Galway scored. TJ Reid whipped over a point immediately after the first goal, and when Power goaled directly after the second, it deprived Galway of the adrenalin that David Burke's two goals should have given them. They were lucky to be only four behind at the break (1-11 to 2-4), because Kilkenny had done all the hurling.

Whatever chance Galway had died with Cyril Donnellan's sending-off in the 49th minute. To be fair, two bad breaks had gone against them in the five minutes beforehand.

It was unfortunate James McGrath had blown the whistle for a foul a split second before Donnellan crashed that shot to the net, but at least Joe Canning converted the resultant free. And when Galway's talisman hit the post a minute later, Jonathan Glynn miscontrolled the rebound, and the Cats went down and got a score at the other end, we all knew it wasn't going to be Galway's day.

As improbable as it seemed such had been Kilkenny's dominance, had that gone in, the sides would have been level, and the momentum might have swung Galway's way. Yet, you sensed Kilkenny weren't going to be denied.

The injury to Skehill and the doubts over Canning's wellbeing didn't help. Skehill's bravery is to be admired -- I can only imagine the pain he was in -- but it had to have an unsettling effect on the team. It was really a call that he should not have had to make, one the management should have taken.

That his side lacked the composure, especially up front, from earlier games, is also something that's bound to have taxed Anthony Cunningham this week. Whatever conclusions the Galway management draw, the pressure Kilkenny applied all over the field had a lot to do with how they played. At any rate, to lose to that team playing that well is nothing to be ashamed of, and Galway have come a long way from the debacle against Waterford a year ago.

What odds now that Henry and Co will be back looking for another three-in-a-row next September?

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