Shock and awe in Leinster
HISTORY beckoned Galway hurlers through previously unopened doors and they stampeded through with ferocious power, flattening a Kilkenny team that had come to be regarded as an immovable object.
As the Bob O'Keeffe Cup left Croke Park on the Galway bus yesterday evening, the questions weren't so much about how they had managed to prise it from Kilkenny's grasp, but rather how they had succeeded in making the most successful outfit in hurling history look so ordinary.
Beating Kilkenny in the championship under Brian Cody is an enormous challenge, which, up to yesterday, had been achieved only six times in 14 seasons, twice by Galway and Cork, once by Wexford and Tipperary.
Now, Galway have moved to the top of that exclusive class after subjecting Kilkenny to a systematic beating which nobody thought remotely possible. Galway went into the Leinster final as 11/2 outsiders after being hit for a total of 7-27 by Westmeath and Offaly in their last two games, inevitably leading to suspicions that the defence would be ripped apart by the Kilkenny attack.
Instead, in one of the most remarkable shut-outs of modern-day hurling, Galway restricted Kilkenny to a single point in the first half hour. Even then, Kilkenny's sole response to Galway's rampant expansion came from a Henry Shefflin free in the 20th minute. By then, Galway had scored 1-6 and by the time Richie Power landed Kilkenny's first point from open play in the 31st minute, Galway had moved on to 2-11.
Two late frees from Shefflin closed out the first-half scoring, but the stunned atmosphere which hung over Croke Park as the teams left for the half-time break was palpable as Galway galloped down the tunnel carrying a 14-point lead (2-12 to 0-4).
It had been constructed off a period of total dominance which had it origins in an opening burst that saw Galway score 1-2 in the first four minutes. Niall Burke pilfered both points, but the goal, scored by Joe Canning in the third minute, was as significant as it was symbolic.
Its significance lay in the settling impact it had on both Canning and Galway, while the symbolism was attached to the manner in which he turned past Jackie Tyrrell after fielding a long delivery. It's most unusual for Tyrrell to be caught out like that, but, in fairness, he probably didn't expect to find himself one-on-one with Canning so early in the game.
The goal settled both Galway and Canning into a high-octane routine which left Kilkenny feeling as if all the oxygen had been sucked from the damp air.
Galway's relentless running presented Kilkenny with problems which Dublin never raised in the semi-final. And with Galway's intensity levels enabling them to match Kilkenny physically, the pre-match script looked headed for the shredder quite early on.
Kilkenny found it incredibly difficult to get on the ball and with Galway driving at them like a maroon-and-white tornado, it quickly became apparent that a shock result was on.
Kilkenny beat Galway by 25 points in the league in April, yet found themselves 16 points behind after 30 minutes. Brian Hogan, usually such a solid anchor at No 6, was struggling against Galway's sprinters, while Tommy Walsh, so often an inspirational presence at No 5, was struggling too.
Mis-hit line balls by Walsh are pretty rare, but two of them led to Galway points in the first half.
The winners' second goal came in the 23rd minute from David Burke, another of the young guns who fired with consistent accuracy.
So, too, did experienced figures Damien Hayes and Cyril Donnellan, the latter helping himself to five points from play, the former bringing huge industry to his game in a variety of postings.
A 14-point interval lead would normally be seen as a certain match-winning position but Kilkenny are a different proposition from most others so their supporters would have felt there was hope of a second-half revival.
Galway were concerned too. They were expecting a huge backlash from a team that did not want to go down in history as the first to lose a Leinster final to Connacht invaders.
"We were nil-all at half-time. That's how we looked at it. We had to re-group, refocus, reset and start at zero. Thankfully, we got the first point of the second half which settled us down," said Galway selector Tom Helebert.
It was an important score but, inevitably, Kilkenny raised their game and gave themselves a lifeline when Richie Hogan scored their first goal in the 44th minute. It followed two earlier points by Shefflin and sub Michael Rice, whose arrival brought an improvement around midfield.
Galway's response needed to be effective and it was. They added three points, but a Shefflin goal, batted to the net off an angled delivery by Richie Hogan, and three further points cut the deficit to eight points at the three-quarter stage.
Given that it stood at 16 points late in the first half, Kilkenny would have felt that a full recovery was now within their range, but Galway were in a different zone this time. As the overall strike rate dropped and the error count increased on both sides over the final quarter, Galway outscored Kilkenny 0-4 to 0-2. Indeed, they should have scored more, but their accuracy disintegrated.
Still, they had so much in hand that it wasn't an issue. Besides, the defence were holding out quite comfortably on a day in which Kilkenny managed only 2-4 from open play.
That contrasted with Galway's impressive 2-14 yield, spread across all of the starting forwards except Conor Cooney and extending to defender David Collins, who landed an inspirational point in the first half.
It all combined to leave Kilkenny with a range of difficulties they could never quite figure out. However, they will get to work quickly on addressing the many issues which arose yesterday and, by All-Ireland quarter-final day on July 28, there's every likelihood that normal service will be resumed.
The Leinster title has gone west, but the All-Ireland crown still rests with Kilkenny, who will now work harder than ever to sort out the power failure which played such a major part in their first provincial defeat since losing to Wexford in the semi-final eight years ago.
Scorers -- Galway: J Canning 1-10 (7f), D Burke 1-2, C Donnellan 0-5, N Burke 0-2, D Hayes, D Collins 0-1 each. Kilkenny: H Shefflin 1-8 (7), R Hogan 1-0, R Power 0-2, M Rice 0-1.
Galway -- J Skehill 7; F Moore 8, K Hynes 7, J Coen 8; D Collins 8, T Og Regan 8, N Donoghue 8; I Tannian 7, A Smith 8; N Burke 8, D Burke 8, D Hayes 8; J Canning 9, C Cooney 7, C Donnellan 9. Subs: J Glynn 7 for C Cooney (53), J Regan 7 for Tannian (57), T Haran 6 for N Burke (61), J Cooney for Donnellan (71).
Kilkenny -- D Herity 6; P Murphy 6, N Hickey 6, J Tyrrell 5; T Walsh 5, B Hogan 5, R Doyle 6; C Buckley 6, P Hogan 5; H Shefflin 7, TJ Reid 5, E Larkin 5, R Power 6, R Hogan 6. Subs: A Fogarty 6 for Fennelly (22), M Rice 7 for P Hogan (26), M Ruth for Reid (57).
Ref -- J McGrath (Westmeath)