Galway must deliver season of substance
GALWAY hurling supporters left Croke Park after the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final win over Kilkenny believing the next win there was only three weeks away.
Kilkenny supporters left wondering if the county was heading into a dip. Almost five years on, Galway are still waiting for their next victory at Croke Park whereas Kilkenny have accumulated four more All-Irelands and remain unbeaten in the championship.
Tomorrow, both Galway and Kilkenny are back at Croke Park in games that should set them up for a Leinster final to match the best that Munster can ever offer.
Stalking the five-in-a-row makes it the most important season on which Kilkenny have embarked because this type of opportunity is so rare. Mind you, this campaign is just as crucial for Galway for different reasons.
Embarrassing is the one word to describe what's happened in Galway since their last All-Ireland win in 1988, with Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly, Cork, Tipperary and Clare all claiming titles in the interim.
What makes it so frustrating for Galway is they have been producing a constant flow of brilliant underage talent, yet haven't delivered a senior team capable of winning the big one.
Still, the past is a different world and, once more, Galway are right back in contention after winning the league. A league success wouldn't, in itself, be enough to prove a case but Galway have now reached a stage where it simply has to be the launch-pad for something substantial.
Galway supporters feel there have been enough false dawns, enough team-building and enough promises of 'jam tomorrow' over the years.
The time has to come when a squad declares itself ready for action. In other words, they play as if there's no tomorrow and very definitely no next year.
This has to be such a season for Galway. Essentially, this is an experienced Galway team. Five of the defenders played in the 2005 All-Ireland final; midfielder Ger Farragher was winning All Stars back then, as was Damien Hayes.
New talent has emerged since, including Joe Canning. He won't win All-Irelands on his own but if the rest of the squad can come up to the mark, he possesses the genius to make the crucial difference when it matters most.
Mind you, he needs to get better ball than he did against Waterford in last year's quarter-final and indeed against Wexford three weeks ago but that's what training grounds are for. That's where you build the attacking strategy around Canning.
While it's important to have workable alternatives, when you have a talent like Canning in your ranks, the system needs to be sufficiently adaptable to get the most out of him.
As a Galwayman, I'm more optimistic about the side's chances this year than for quite some time. There's a decent balance to the team and the motivation is there after the disappointments of recent years when, it must said, Galway seriously under-performed.
It could happen again but I have a feeling that it won't. Galway will need to be extremely careful, starting tomorrow against Offaly. I know all about Offaly from my managerial days during which I was in charge of Galway in five championship games against them, winning three and losing two. Unfortunately, the two defeats were in All-Ireland finals where we started as favourites.
Still, I would expect Galway to win tomorrow. Their talent pool is deeper than Offaly's so now it's a question of delivering on that and making their own piece of history by reaching the Leinster final for the first time.
SO then, Kilkenny are back out to play. There's always a special atmosphere when defending All-Ireland champions make their seasonal debut but there's an extra edge this time as Kilkenny chase the five-in-a-row.
Not that you'll hear much talk of it in Kilkenny, where they have perfected the art of making even historic campaigns look normal. Still, there's nothing normal about this one and, even if the Cats have the iciest of dispositions, there will be a degree of edginess about them.
Dublin are fast, fit and fired-up. What's more, they are getting closer all the time to being the real deal. Also, they're getting Kilkenny at the best possible time as the champions come straight off the training fields, whereas Dublin have a game behind them.
Galway twice led Kilkenny by five points in last year's Leinster semi-final before finally being worn down but it did show that even the best teams can take time to warm to their task. That's why it's vital for Dublin to ask early questions. They were chasing Kilkenny all the way in last year's Leinster final and just couldn't make up the difference. Unless Dublin make a sprint start, it may be much the same tomorrow.
The outcome of the Munster semi-final is in absolutely no doubt, with the only questions to be answered at Pairc Ui Chaoimh being how Cork perform and how much sustained opposition Limerick can offer them.
What's happened in Limerick is seriously damaging to hurling inside and outside the county but then too many people in Limerick, Munster and Croke Park stood back and allowed things get out of hand.
The upshot is that Limerick go into battle with a squad which, for all its commitment and honesty, is punching above its weight. Good luck to the players involved but they're facing insurmountable odds tomorrow.
It's been said that Cork won't have any interest in running up a big score on Limerick. Rubbish. When a team is fine-tuned for a championship game, they play with as much power as possible -- I see a big win for Cork and a bad day for hurling.