If the Cats are to fall, it will be in August or September, not today
Galway have made progress, but not quite enough to halt Kilkenny this time, says Jamesie O'Connor
If, over much of the last decade, the Leinster hurling final has been the poor relation in the provincial championship structure, especially when viewed in the context of its flasher and higher-profile Munster counterpart, that scenario surely changes this afternoon.
Such has been Kilkenny's dominance over Wexford, Offaly and, latterly, Dublin, all of whom have been habitually steamrolled in recent years, that the days of Kilkenny having to peak for a Leinster final appeared to have long since passed.
However, since Galway finally eschewed the madness of the old system and entered Leinster, this day has been coming. The clash of these sides has loomed large on the horizon ever since the schedule pitted them in opposite sides of the draw.
With regard to the bigger picture concerning championship 2010, it's hugely significant in terms of shaping the landscape for the rest of the year. In fact, this is a real day of reckoning for both counties. With a win this afternoon, the Cats would have the straightforward schedule they've become accustomed to, with ample time to both rest and prepare, as well as being just two wins away from the magical five-in-a-row.
Lose, and they're in unfamiliar territory. An extra game would be required, possibly against a rejuvenated Tipperary in the quarter-final, a semi-final probably with Cork before potentially Galway again in the final. Great and all as this team is, there still has to be a limit as to how often they can go to the well and the last time they failed to win Leinster in 2004, the extra games sapped them before they succumbed to Cork in the final.
That's not the route Kilkenny want to take. Nor, given the historic nature of today's game, will this side want the legacy of being the first Leinster team to lose their provincial title to a bunch of outsiders. There haven't been too many days when Brian Cody's men haven't been "up for it". But there have been a number of occasions when the stakes have appeared that little bit higher and he's had them at boiling point. On such days, their level of focus and intent has been so savage, they've obliterated the opposition. Cork in the semi-final two years ago being a case in point. So, with all that on the line, Galway better be ready because it's an understatement to say that Kilkenny will be coming with everything they have.
Two months ago, with uncertainty as to where Kilkenny were at, coming off their poorest league showing in years, and the memory of how close Galway were for an hour in Tullamore last year, neutrals and commentators had to be bullish about Galway's prospects of going a step further in 2010. They appeared to finally have a settled side, looked fitter, stronger and more cohesive than last year as well as having additional depth on the bench. Add to that the efficient dismantling of Cork in the league final and you could understand the genuine optimism amongst their supporters. But the wheels have come off the Galway wagon in the intervening period.
Events in Páirc Uí Chaoimh have since devalued the currency of the league final win. Cork showed nothing in that game, especially with Tipperary foremost in their minds. The championship opener with Wexford exposed weaknesses and the two matches with Offaly a surprising fragility that could have seen them beaten.
It's incomprehensible that Kilkenny could find themselves in the position Galway were in last weekend -- up 2-7 to 0-4 and cruising against the wind -- and not pulverise the opposition. Somehow Galway contrived to go from there to a point down heading into stoppage time until Joe Canning and Ger Farragher fired them ahead. Offaly have obviously made strides under Joe Dooley, but as they've done for much of the last ten years, a tuned-in Kilkenny would have wiped the floor with both them and Wexford.
Remember, this is the same Offaly side that nearly lost to Limerick in the league and only a month ago required a last-gasp equaliser to force extra-time with an Antrim side that only won three games in Division 2. Which begs the question as to where Galway's true form line really lies?
And yet, the Tribesmen have the potential to pull it off. Canning (pictured right) is obviously a match-winner, given sufficient ball; Damien Hayes has been electric at times, and both Iarla Tannian and Aidan Harte have the physical strength to prosper in the hostile environment that is the Kilkenny full-back line. In addition, no other side in the country punishes indiscretions or achieves the same return from placed balls. Farragher's, and Canning's, conversion rates from frees and line balls is unequalled and any free close to goal represents a legitimate green flag opportunity given Canning's power and strike rate.
As ever, winning sufficient possession in the middle third remains the key to creating the space to unlock the Kilkenny defence. After looking like he'd solved the centre-forward position, Cyril Donnellan's form has gone south and with JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh on the two wings, Kilkenny have the scope to strangle Galway in the air especially on their own puck-out. Were Andy Smyth and Aengus Callinan to curb the Kilkenny duo's influence and not contribute on the scoreboard, it would still constitute a win for the Tribesmen. However, midfielder David Burke is a loss and, like Gizzy Lyng and Daniel Currams in previous matches, is another example of an inherently honest player paying a punishment that doesn't fit the crime.
If the first serious question mark over Galway centres on the possession stakes, the second hangs over the quality of those wearing one to six. The defensive frailties that appeared to have been addressed during the league have been re-exposed and if the injury to David Collins, arguably their best defender this year, rules him out, it weakens them further.
Serious questions have been raised about Ollie Canning's pace despite everything else he brings to the team, and even though he's on the bench, Aidan Fogarty caused Damien Joyce massive problems 12 months ago. More than ever Fergal Moore's loss will be keenly felt especially with Shane Kavanagh looking less than authoritative at full-back. It's also questionable if a defence featuring five of the six who played in 2005 will be good enough to contain a better and vastly more experienced attack today.
In such circumstances, Kilkenny will look to get the match-ups right. Two examples where their starting selection reflects this is Eddie Brennan's siting at centre-forward where he'll look to run Tony óg Regan, plus Henry Shefflin who'll have a significant height advantage if he starts as selected in the corner.
Either way, Kilkenny will probe and probe until the cracks appear, and while it may take time, they have the weapons on the field to hurt Galway as well as additional firepower on the bench.
Of course there are also some unanswered questions at the other end of the field. How for example will Canning fare on Noel Hickey? Will they spring young Richie Cummins from the bench? With Kilkenny so adept at funnelling defenders back and clogging the space in front of goal, can Galway devise a strategy to counteract it and get their dangermen on the ball? Will they have the guts to utilise the short puck-out to draw Kilkenny out?
Two months ago, I might well have been tipping Galway. But everything about Kilkenny's performance and attitude against Dublin hinted that they've picked up where they left off last September. Conversely, the month of June has raised more questions than answers about how good Galway really are.
All in all, Kilkenny have arguably more to lose. Galway won't want to taste defeat, but with two tough matches in the last fortnight, suspension and injuries coming into play and less time than they would ideally have liked to prepare for the ultimate challenge Kilkenny present, Galway have a couple of outs were they to come up short.
Twelve months ago, Kilkenny's physicality eventually wore them down and the ten unanswered points Kilkenny hit in the final quarter is the abiding memory from Tullamore that evening. On the evidence to date, you can't say that Galway have progressed enough nor Kilkenny regressed enough to bridge that gap. So if the Cats are to fall, it's going to have to be in August or September.
Kilkenny v Galway,