Sport Hurling

Saturday 24 February 2018

Galway facing first real test

Offaly clash will show if young Tribesmen can handle pressure, writes Dermot Crowe

FOR a long time it hasn't been wise to trust Galway in the championship, with their well-earned reputation as fitful chameleons. But if never a sure bet, they are always good for a tease. A seasoned follower, who matured into adulthood when they were winning All-Irelands in the 1980s, has been to every game they've played this year. He has hope, he says, not optimism.

A thumping from Kilkenny at Nowlan Park and a sleepy points concession to Waterford were the spring lows but they showed a grain of consistency and their younger players an encouraging zest for senior hurling. Galway have shown all this before and left us with another bogus dawn.

Today won't give definite answers either, it will take more time. But there have been positive signals; and that is all you feel entitled to allow in Galway's case.

You could take their performances against Dublin as symptomatic of a team headed in the right direction. Dublin squeezed the life out of Galway in Tullamore last year and confirmed their status as the most obvious challenger to Kilkenny's reign of the province. They were exceedingly fortunate to defeat Dublin earlier in the league at Parnell Park. In the three meetings this year in the league Galway haven't been beaten, and won twice, impressively on both occasions.

The first was back at the start of the league when Anthony Cunningham played eight of the side that defeated Dublin in the previous September's All-Ireland under 21 final. Half of those had already sampled senior championship hurling but 11 of the under 21s have been deployed during the league at some point and recently two of last year's minors -- Jonathan Glynn and Pádraig Brehony -- also earned call-ups. And why not; it is the age of the 19-year-old county hurler with zero inhibitions. It will not be a surprise to see Glynn win a starting place before the summer is out.

Management has changed with Cunningham's arrival and he hasn't been afraid to reform. The defence shows an almost complete overhaul. Kevin Hynes has taken over at full-back, a position he holds for his club Sarsfields. Last year's under 21 full-back Niall Donoghue will play beside with the experienced Fergal Moore in the other corner.

It is a completely new full-back line from that selected against Offaly when these sides met in the championship two years ago. Only Tony óg Regan survives from the defence, though David Collins would have been another but for his injury. Regan was the team's full-back when they last got past the All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2005. Shane Kavanagh had the position nailed for more of the time since. Kavanagh is said to have been asked back after the drawn relegation match against Dublin but declined.

Some sloppy leaks against Westmeath caused concern about the line being Galway's undoing but they have been eased to some degree by a good showing, and no goals conceded, against Tipperary in a challenge after the Westmeath game. James Skehill's return also adds experience to the area as Galway prepare to face the threat of Offaly's snipers.

Up front, they have assembled a powerful forward line and the return of Joe Canning is another massive morale lift. Canning's value was vividly highlighted in the games against Dublin.

Training has also been well received with an emphasis on coaching and uncomplicated drills. Brian Hanley, the former Athenry hurler and manager of Westmeath, saw Galway up close in the first round and feels they will be too much for Offaly this afternoon.

"They are very fit and well organised and well drilled, their movement up front was exceptional," says Hanley. "They have the work done to get over Offaly. They have bulked up no end, got way more physical -- they looked very strong, take a player like David Burke for example. We went to see Athenry play St Thomas in club hurling here a week before and couldn't get over James Regan and Conor Cooney, their upper-body strength.

"I think the stats showed they had 17 shots in the first 15 minutes of the second half. We did great for the last ten minutes but Galway could have annihilated us. I see a different vibe coming out of Galway. Look at the way they recovered from the defeat by Kilkenny in the league."

Glynn, a minor winner last year, came on and won five puckouts in a row against Westmeath. He is the kind of bold ball-winning player with a good technique and brain that Galway have craved for years. They have a surfeit of options in attack but that rawness at the back can expect to be tested.

Two comprehensive beatings from Kilkenny have been part of the learning process, one in the Walsh Cup final, but Galway take some measure of comfort knowing they are not alone. A 25-point hammering, however, does not come as a recommended learning module. Cunningham's backers appealed for patience in the immediate aftermath and appealed to supporters to have faith in their younger players. It may well need, they said, the three years Cunningham has been given.

Kilkenny may be next up if they don't lose sight of the danger posed by Offaly today. But winning today, even for a young side, is a fundamental step and it will be interesting to see how they handle the first real levels of expectation.

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