Impossible to look past old dogs for the hard road to September
Kilkenny are stronger for the return of star names, while Galway cannot afford to lose, says Jamesie O'Connor
Facing into a sixth championship match in eight weeks, Kilkenny are in uncharted territory in the first of today's All-Ireland quarter-finals. But has the opportunity to knock out a side that was visibly on the ropes a month ago slipped by?
The susceptibility to an ambush that was evident in the aftermath of the defeat to Dublin – fatigue, mileage on the clock, unavailability of key players with long-term injuries, the short-term knocks that saw Paul Murphy, Jackie Tyrrell and others either out or clearly operating at less than 100 per cent, and the emotional hangover that losing a championship match to opposition they had become accustomed to rolling over – may very well have passed.
Tipperary and Waterford have both given it their best shot, but neither could land the telling blows to put Kilkenny down and, worryingly for everyone else, the champions are still standing.
With a couple of weeks to recover and recharge the batteries after those exertions, and both Michael Fennelly and Henry Shefflin back in the team, Kilkenny aren't in a bad place. Morale in the camp has to be high given the manner of the two wins and how deep they had to dig. The mental toughness, the resilience under pressure, and the response they were able to summon, when it looked as if the show could be over, has to have restored confidence and self-belief.
The defence, with Paul Murphy's return, has been outstanding; the switch to midfield has rejuvenated Eoin Larkin and, up front, Richie Hogan, Richie Power and Colin Fennelly are beginning to motor. With the return of Michael Fennelly and Shefflin to the starting 15, there's also a more menacing look to the team. Shefflin looks in great shape physically, and obviously the management have decided that the best way to get him match-fit is to start him, and give him the required time to play himself in.
Cork have to believe otherwise, but whatever vulnerability might have existed looks to be receding the closer they get to September. That said, Kilkenny have had to expend more energy in the last month than any other team still left in the championship. At some point, that has to catch up with them. The question is whether Cork are good enough to pose a stiff enough challenge to bring that into play.
No doubt Jimmy Barry-Murphy and the Cork management will have put a lot of thought into how to go about that task this afternoon. They have to take heart from how a relatively young Waterford side came so close a fortnight ago. With Patrick Horgan's red card in the Munster final correctly rescinded, Cork are entitled to feel they have more potency in attack than Waterford. Prior to his sending-off on the stroke of half-time against Limerick, they were right in it. That decision obviously had a monumental bearing on the way the second half unfolded, but also helps to minimise any psychological fallout there might have been from the final result.
Obviously, Cork don't have the players or physique to engage Kilkenny in an arm-wrestle as Dublin so effectively managed, but they do have an abundance of skill and pace in attack. The open spaces in Thurles should suit them. But they can't play to the strengths of their inside forwards and exploit that space without an adequate supply of ball. Kilkenny have devoured the Cork half-forward
line in recent years, and if they allow that to happen again, Cork are dead in the water. The other worry from a Cork perspective is that they've failed to score a goal in their last two championship games, and it's nigh on impossible to see them winning without raising at least one green flag this afternoon.
That ability to get goals and put opposing defences to the sword has also been an issue for Kilkenny this season. However, they'll have taken a good look at the Cork full-back line because Clare created goal opportunities aplenty, albeit without taking them. Stephen McDonnell is named at full-back for Cork, but whether he actually plays there or not is another story.
McDonnell really struggled in the league final last year with Eoin Larkin's physical power, and was in dire trouble with Darach Honan in the Clare match as well. Admittedly, he was quite good against Limerick, but that was effectively at corner-back, because Shane O'Neill picked up Declan Hannon who played a roaming role, particularly early on.
O'Neill also had a fine game and with his pace that task suited him down to the ground. However, he looked a lot less comfortable manning the square when Hannon played more as an orthodox full-forward in the second half. Cork may very well deploy him to track Richie Hogan, but with any one of Walter Walsh, Richie Power, Shefflin or Larkin on the edge of the square at different stages, Kilkenny will keep probing and it's hard to see them not opening Cork up with that level of firepower.
Having been pulverised a year ago in the league final, it's very hard to see where Cork have closed the gap between the sides, particularly without the services of Paudie O'Sullivan and Brian Murphy. Kilkenny may not be as potent a force, particularly given the demands this season has placed on them but, like Dracula, it's going to take someone to drive the stake clean through their heart before we see the back of them and I just can't see Cork having the required physicality or savagery to pull that feat off.
Predicting the outcome of the second quarter-final isn't nearly as straightforward because compelling cases can be made for both sides. Coming off the back of that shock defeat in the Leinster final, it's no surprise to hear that the wagons have been well and truly circled in Galway. The manner of that performance means their backs are really to the wall now.
That they failed to get to the pace of the game until early in the second half can be partially explained away by the respective paths both sides took to get to the Leinster final. Dublin were battle-hardened, but it still shouldn't excuse the poverty of Galway's display on the day. Mentally, I don't think they rated the Dubs, and they certainly weren't prepared for the intensity and quality of performance Dublin produced.
No doubt, that's meant there's been a good deal of straight-talking done since. Sometimes you have to listen to things said that you'd prefer not to have to hear, but that honesty is vital if the team is to move forward and the season is to be salvaged. Remember, Clare and Limerick stand between Galway and where they want to be, and while neither of those sides can be taken for granted, these are games Galway should still expect to win.
The doors have been locked at training – a good indication there's been skin and hair flying, and it appears that management have done as they said they would and picked the team on form. The axe has been wielded. Six changes have been made, but I'm not sure about the wisdom of all of those calls. James Skehill can count himself unlucky, but Colm Callinan is a good 'keeper, and Andy Smith and Damien Hayes lifted things considerably when introduced in the Leinster final. Jonathan Glynn will give them added ball-winning ability, and if they feel the need to use Joe Canning at times out the field, an aerial threat close to goal. But it's a big call to leave the physicality that Iarla Tannian and Cyril Donnellan would bring on the bench and a big match in which to give Jason Grealish his debut.
Defensively, there's been huge uncertainty, and a lot of speculation within the county, especially as to who will man the central defensive positions. With Kevin Hynes struggling at full-back, there was a clamour of sorts within the county to see Niall Donoghue get the nod in that position. However, he was apparently torched by Canning in training last week, and with the pace Darach Honan possesses, it's understandable why they've left him out.
Numbers are likely to mean very little anyway, and in all likelihood they'll go man to man, with Johnny Coen at centre-back to man-mark Tony Kelly. In the circumstances, if I was a Clare forward, I'd be bracing myself for a much more abrasive and aggressive start to the game from Galway. It's important Clare don't allow themselves to be bullied but with so many young players in attack, and the stakes as
high as they are, Galway will surely try to rough them up early on. Clare will have to hurl their way through that because outside of John Conlon they don't have the physically strong type of player capable of going toe to toe with Galway in that sort of game. At any rate, Clare may not necessarily start the way Galway expect them to so there may be a bit of cat and mouse in the first ten minutes until things settle down.
At the other end, stopping Galway begins and ends with Joe Canning and Davy Fitzgerald's key decision will be who he deploys to curb the Portumna man. David McInerney has done well for the most part in his first season at full-back, but both Maurice Shanahan and Jack Guiney had their moments, and expecting him to hold Canning in a game of this magnitude would be a big ask. Clare have the option of giving that job to Cian Dillon whose form has been excellent, but ensuring whoever's handed that responsibility gets the maximum possible protection from the half-back line is sure to be a tactical priority.
Clare have a lot of skilful hurlers in this team, and an abundance of youth, pace and energy, especially in attack. They are creating the scoring opportunities, and if they hit a day when Honan and McGrath deliver, the rest bring their shooting boots, and Canning is contained, Clare are eminently capable of posting a match-winning tally.
Whatever happens, with at least three championship wins, their Division 1 status retained, and youth on their side, Davy Fitz can make the case that progress has been made and the year has been relatively successful. That makes losing that bit more palatable.
Galway on the other hand don't have that luxury. The Dublin match has given them no room for manoeuvre. Unlike Clare, they can't afford to lose. I think they have enough quality to ensure that doesn't happen.