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Time for Galway to show some backbone

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Galway's Joe Canning gets away from Kilkenny duo JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh when the teams met at the same stage of last year's Allianz NHL

Galway's Joe Canning gets away from Kilkenny duo JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh when the teams met at the same stage of last year's Allianz NHL

Galway's Joe Canning gets away from Kilkenny duo JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh when the teams met at the same stage of last year's Allianz NHL

Jonathan Glynn, one of Galway's bright new generation, is correct in his assessment that last year "wasn't an absolute disaster" for the county.

The U-21 footballers were the saviours, delivering an All-Ireland title at the start of a summer when the senior hurlers were regarded as serious big-time contenders.

Indeed, if you were told after the exhilarating Allianz League final in early May that neither Kilkenny nor Tipperary would reach the All-Ireland final, the obvious assumption would be that Galway were poised to blossom. They had, after all, come so very close to unseating Kilkenny in 2012 that it looked only a matter of time before they landed the big prize.

It didn't happen last year. In fact, contrary to Glynn's optimistic take on events, 2013 was a nightmare season for Galway. There wasn't a single positive dimension to take from a campaign which started so hopefully when they beat Kilkenny in the opening round of the league.

They won only two of eight games (v Waterford in the league and Laois in the Leinster semi-final) from there on, lurching from mediocre to miserable as they went.

Their exits from league, Leinster and All-Ireland competitions were by sufficiently high margins to raise serious questions about so many aspects of the set-up. Worse still, it fuelled suspicions that when the real pressure came on, Galway lacked the collective will to respond.

Accusing a group of lacking heart is one of the most serious charges levelled in sport but hard evidence cannot be ignored.

RESOLVE

And, in Galway's case, the defeats by Kilkenny in the league semi-final, (seven points), by Dublin in the Leinster final (12 points) and by Clare in the All-Ireland quarter-final (six points) all hinted at an absence of resolve once the flow started to go against them.

They were level with Kilkenny after 20 minutes but lost the rest of the game by 1-16 to 0-12. They were level with Dublin after 16 minutes, only to be outgunned by 2-21 to 2-9 over the remaining three quarters. They trailed Clare by only two points with eight minutes remaining but were outpointed 5-1 from there on.

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Galway's main problem in all three games was that when the bleeding started, they found it impossible to stem the flow. One of the characteristics of mental strength in any sport is the capacity to minimise the damage when the opposition has the momentum.

It's something Galway hurlers appear unable to do (they lost the final 20 minutes of the 2012 All-Ireland final replay with Kilkenny by 2-9 to 1-4), a fault-line which will always leave them vulnerable until it's sorted out.

Glynn said that Galway would "take a leaf from Clare's book," an understandable ambition until viewed in the context of where Davy Fitzgerald and his squad started from. They were quite some way behind Galway in 2012, yet sped past their neighbours last year.

Galway have no input into how others develop but the question arises as to why they lost so much power last year. How did Clare – and others – move ahead of them in such a short time?

Some Galway supporters were claiming after the defeat by Kilkenny in the league semi-final this time last year that it was no bad thing and that it might have long-term benefits.

It was the ultimate in arrant nonsense, showing how deluded some people can be when it comes to reading situations. Neither the Galway management nor squad offered that viewpoint, but it must be said that the sloppy second-half performance hinted at a mindset that didn't regard a league semi-final defeat as a serious setback.

Twelve months on, Galway are back in precisely the same situation, heading into a league semi-final against Kilkenny, who always work on the basis that the next game – whether Walsh Cup first round or All-Ireland final – is the most important, so we can expect them to be as driven as ever tomorrow.

And Galway? The unquestionable reality is that this is a hugely important game for them. Conor Hayes remarked this week that winning the league title is more important to Galway and Tipperary than to Kilkenny and Clare. He's right but I would narrow it down even further, making Galway's need the greatest of the quartet.

Another defeat by Kilkenny would leave Galway in a most uncertain state of mind, heading into the Leinster championship where, most likely, they will face Cody's clan in the semi-final on June 22. Galway's form this year has been reasonably stable, delivering three wins, a draw and two defeats from six games.

Their average concession rate of 1-16 is the lowest of the four semi-finalists, an unusual situation for Galway, for whom defensive stability hasn't always been their strong point. Ronan Burke is settling in nicely at full-back, while Iarla Tannian has done well at centre-back, but both will come under more scrutiny from now on as opponents test them for speed.

Joe Canning's return after a successful club campaign with Portumna should be a big plus but it also carries a degree of intrigue as to where he will play this season. His days as an out-and-out full-forward, scavenging for goals near the opposition square, have become increasingly infrequent, something which many Galway supporters find baffling.

Opposition love to see Canning out the field where he carries no goal threat, yet Galway and Portumna often deploy him in that role. Presumably, he has a free hand to operate as he likes with his club, so drifting out appears to be his personal preference.

It seems he is allowed the same latitude with Galway. Either that, or Cunningham believes he is of more value in a roaming role. It's surprising that the man most feared by the opposition when they play Galway drifts so far from goal, often quite early in games.

Surely, he should be used as a weapon of maximum destruction close to the opposition goal rather than out the field, where his impact is less?

Galway's need to site Canning in goal-scoring territory is underlined by their yield rate this year. They hit Tipperary for three goals in the first half of the league clash in Pearse Stadium but scored only four other goals – two from Conor Cooney penalties – against Dublin, Waterford, Kilkenny, Clare and Limerick.

That's by far the lowest goal rate of the four league semi-finalists and adds considerable weight to the view that Canning should be played as a specialist full-forward.

It will be fascinating to see how Cunningham uses him this year, while there will also be considerable interest in whether Canning takes over from Cooney as free-taker. Cooney has been ultra-reliable in Canning's absence and would be very unlucky to be jocked off by the returning captain.

Frustrated Galway followers will point to the fact that league titles in 2000, 2004 and 2010 were not followed up by All-Ireland glory as proof that spring success carries no guarantees of summer flowering. That's quite true but the fact still remains that this Galway squad needs to deliver something tangible to underpin their championship bid.

It takes consistency to win the league and since game-to-game reliability certainly hasn't been a Galway virtue, the benefits of remaining unbeaten in five games – which they would need to do in order to win the title – have to be enormous.

Tomorrow is a massive day for Galway and while it may not define their entire season, it will certainly provide a firm pointer to what lies ahead. If they doubt that, all they need do is check back on how last season unfolded after they lost the league semi-final.


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