Galway failing to make best use of Canning
NEVER mind the betting coup involving a race in Kilbeggan on Monday evening, there was some real value available in hurling over the last week.
That's assuming, of course, that you were inspired to know that Galway and Offaly would draw in Croke Park last Sunday and that Dublin's U-21s would beat Kilkenny down in Nowlan Park on Wednesday evening.
It goes to show that there are very few certainties in hurling, although we have to remove Kilkenny seniors from that qualification, it seems. They produced an excellent performance against Dublin, one which would have beaten anybody on the basis of what we've seen so far.
I heard and read some comments about how Kilkenny were a bit ring-rusty and would have concerns over their shooting. Rubbish. That would only be relevant if they weren't scoring freely, which of course they were, racking up 4-19.
Notice anything about that? They were back scoring goals. Only once in the last four championships (2008 Leinster final when they hit Wexford for five) have Kilkenny scored as many goals as last Sunday. Whether it was a one-off or a new trend remains to be seen, but either way it was ominous because they are well capable of hitting enough points to win too.
The only negative for Kilkenny last Sunday was that the Galway-Offaly game ended level. Today's replay will bring them on considerably, leaving the winners better placed than they were for a crack at Kilkenny in the final.
However, on the basis of what we saw last Sunday, Galway and Offaly have quite some way to go to match Kilkenny. Offaly weren't regarded as a serious threat to Kilkenny but Galway were, yet they rarely performed like genuine contenders.
What would have happened if Kilkenny had a four-point lead and an extra man against Offaly? They would have galloped home without fuss, whereas Galway turned in on themselves and became all edgy and insecure.
Offaly's well thought-out approach was hugely influential, as was their sheer determination to make things happen, even against the odds. Question is -- why didn't Galway make better use of the extra man? I'd play the extra man further forward in order to put pressure on higher up the field, because very often when you get five forwards against six backs, the extra man makes no real impact.
Also, Galway need to get more structure on how they use Joe Canning. It sometimes looks as if the rest of the forwards are on a different wavelength, with the result that he's both the horse and the plough on the attacking furrow. It shouldn't be like that.
It's always worrying for a team when they concede goals like Galway did last Sunday. They resulted from a very basic approach by Offaly to run at their men, a policy which unexpectedly paid dividends.
Offaly certainly targeted Ollie Canning, who's excellent when it comes to reading the game and sweeping up loose ball, but who wasn't as effective in hand-to-hand ground-fighting against an aggressive opponent.
Offaly surprised many with the manner in which they were able to build up momentum after struggling in the early minutes. That's a concern for Galway but they have another chance to get it right. I would expect them to improve and they will need to.
Offaly's confidence will be sky-high after last Sunday and Joe Dooley will have them convinced they are ready for another significant step up.
I still fancy Galway to get it right second time and if they do it with real conviction it would set them up for a real cut off Kilkenny eight days later. Kilkenny will start hot favourites of course, irrespective of who they meet, but Galway (at their best) are better equipped to take them on with enough pace and power to raise questions.
It's all falling into place for Kilkenny now that Noel Hickey is back at No 3, releasing JJ Delaney to wing-back. Michael Rice and Michael Fennelly are a terrific midfield partnership, while Brian Cody has so many forwards to choose from that his biggest problem is starting the best six.
Still, there are no certainties, even for Kilkenny. Their U-21s hammered Offaly but lost by six points to Dublin on Wednesday. Usually, you would have a few U-21s on the Kilkenny senior panel but not this year, so maybe the young crop isn't as high-yielding as people thought.
Still, as of now, it's all looking good for Kilkenny's five-in-a-row but, as with the World Cup, where the knock-outs only begin this weekend, all we've seen so far are part of the group stages in hurling. In other words, it's early days.