Sport Hurling

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Phantom exorcised but gratitude will be short-lived

Tommy Conlon

They did it solely for themselves, obviously, but Galway's surreal demolition of the champions last Sunday was a gift to the game in general too. For a young team it was a landmark result in their development. For the wider hurling community, it was welcomed not so much with a feeling of relief but a wave of liberation.

One suspects that in a lot of GAA households the television sets were tuned into the tennis final at Wimbledon rather than the Leinster final at Croke Park. At least at Wimbledon there was a chance that one supreme champion could be beaten. Roger Federer might, just might, go down to a younger opponent. Kilkenny -- not a chance.

Two weeks earlier, they'd hammered Dublin by 18 points in the semi-final. Dublin were supposed to be one of the few teams in with a shout of matching them. The result left a pall of gloom hanging over the season like a blanket of heavy fog. Tributes were dutifully paid once again to Kilkenny's greatness but they couldn't conceal the deepening pessimism about the champions' stranglehold. Was there to be no relief at all?

It was only June and already it was looking like a one-team tournament, a one-party state. The Leinster championship had been losing all credibility as a competition for several years. Now the All-Ireland itself was threatening to go the same way.

Then, out of the blue, an uprising. The ball was thrown in and the team in maroon detonated in all directions. They started at a manic tempo and didn't let up until half-time. They were in a heightened state; their play was spontaneous, unconscious, automatic. And when a team is in this state the ball seems to end up favouring them all the time, falling at their feet as if by alchemy. But it's just that their reflexes are sharper; their ground speed, anticipation and decision-making all operating a split-second faster than their opponents.

Those symptoms were visible after a couple of minutes. Galway were clearly going to give Kilkenny a competitive game, at least. There would be no procession on this occasion. Except there was a procession, but the other way around. The scoreline became increasingly bizarre as the match unfolded. Five minutes, ten, 15, 20, 30 -- and still not a Kilkenny score from play. Just a single point from a free in that first half-hour. The score was 2-11 to 0-1 at this stage.

It was hard to take in at the time and it's hard to take seriously now. Galway's 2-11 was accumulated with tremendous style and conviction. It's the 0-1 that gives off a few nagging doubts. It looks and sounds suspect, an artificial statistic.

In that sense it was an artificial first half. Galway were the real thing, flesh and blood in three dimensions; their opponents were cardboard cut-outs of the real thing. This was a phantom Kilkenny team. It was a strange sight.

The match returned to reality after half-time. Galway came down to earth and Kilkenny came out of their zombie state. Galway's second-half performance was, of necessity, more mundane. They were no longer in the zone; they had to struggle for the freedom that had flowed through them in the first. They had to cope with adversity. They shipped two goals, not remarkable goals but Kilkenny goals: the type that make opposing fans nervous and which so often in the past have led to a dam burst of scores.

On each occasion Galway replied with points at the other end. Psychologically, the challengers were impressively solid in a second half where they might have been vulnerable to complacency after the cakewalk of the first.

Naturally, there were a few moments of indulgence, flashes of the skittish immaturity that seem to be part of the legacy in Galway hurling. A Hollywood pass for a goal chance when the point was on; a nonchalant handpass that went straight to an opponent. A solo run into the Kilkenny defence with the ball on the stick -- and it hard enough to hold onto, against that defence, when it's in the hand. Inevitably, they stripped the ball off the carrier and a matter of seconds later had it in the net at the other end. The game still had some 30 minutes left in it at that

stage. Galway supporters with long memories would've had the horrors after this particular cameo. It was another little lesson in ruthlessness from one of the traditional powers, with all their heritage and deep race memory about how to put down this giddy tribe from the west.

On another day the roof could've caved in after such naivety was punished. Galway got away with it on this occasion, perhaps cushioned from any debilitating aftershocks by the breadth of their lead on the scoreboard. They kept it sensible thereafter. In fact, having stormed through the first half like guerrillas in an ambush, they managed the second half more like accountants. They kept Kilkenny at arm's length and rode it out comfortably to the final whistle. The contrast in performances was impressive.

The next stage is the hard part -- and they know it. This young Galway team may have done the rest of the hurling nation a big favour last Sunday, but the gratitude will be short-lived. No one will fear them; they were just innocent enough to beat the team that everyone else feared.

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