Friday 24 November 2017

Winding up for the backlash

Galway have raised questions in Kilkenny that even a win today won't answer, writes Dermot Crowe

SIX days after losing to Galway in the Leinster final, Kilkenny hurlers faithfully reported for duty at a variety of club league fixtures. None of the matinée idols deemed it beneath their station.

Tommy Walsh, whose lineballs turned into skewed assists for two Galway scores, purged himself in Tullaroan's match with Ballyhale Shamrocks at Dunnamaggin. In the same game, Michael Fennelly continued his recovery by coming on after half-time, his first competitive hurling since the league final.

"Tommy (Walsh) gave an exhibition," says John Power, the former Kilkenny hurler. "He was jumping out of his skin. And that is Tommy for you; when you doubt him, when you're asking 'is Tommy slowing down', he can produce that. You write off Tommy Walsh at your peril. If you say 'Tommy Walsh is on the way out', you are putting batteries into Tommy really."

Less than ten miles away in Thomastown the same evening, Michael Rice, introduced to telling effect in the first half against Galway, hurled for Carrickshock against Graigue-Ballycallan. From all accounts, he was irrepressible. At Nowlan Park, city rivals James Stephens and Dicksboro went into battle. Eoin Larkin, who passed largely unnoticed in Croke Park the previous Sunday, needed an injection to play. He compiled 2-10 in a breathtaking performance.

That Saturday the local hurling switchboard went into overdrive, lights flashing at venues throughout the county. Over in Freshford, JJ Delaney announced his return after a broken finger had ruled him out of the Leinster final. He helped inspire a heroic comeback for Fenians against Danesfort. After an utterly humbling and often embarrassing lesson in Croke Park, a cast of players feted as some of the best ever to play the game saw hurling as the obvious therapy. No protests were heard about the six-day rule.

How shocking was the trauma they'd endured? Even the Leinster final defeat by Offaly in 1995 can't compare. Nor the 17-point demolition by Wexford in 1976 -- Kilkenny's heftiest championship defeat since the 1937 All-Ireland final in Killarney by Tipperary. Granted, 1976 was a bigger defeat than this year's Leinster final. But the manner of this year's loss was more disturbing. In 1976, there were six points between the sides at half-time with Kilkenny having faced the wind. They had scored 1-4. With 19 minutes gone three weeks ago, Kilkenny trailed 1-6 to nil.

Up in the Croke Park press box, Michael Walsh was doing match analysis for KCLR alongside commentator Pat Treacy. "People were absolutely stunned, in fairness," says Walsh. "Before the game someone was saying that Galway had a right chance and we all thought he was a bit mad, he was saying something might happen; I really couldn't see it. Everyone was looking at each other to see was it really happening."

It was happening alright. Kilkenny registered their first point after almost 20 minutes but Galway drove on. David Burke's goal three minutes later made it 2-8 to 0-1. "I am doing it (radio match analysis) for seven or eight years in the height of all this success they are having," says Walsh, "and this is something I would not have witnessed before. I actually believed even at half-time that if they got a goal or two they could come back. I suppose that is the belief I have in the players that are there. The most impressive part was the way Galway went and scored points when Kilkenny did get the goals. Galway kept responding."

How? Why? What does it tell us? "In the Brian Cody era Kilkenny have never been complacent," says Walsh. "I find it hard to think they would have been, but I will say this: I think there was huge emphasis on the Dublin game, by both teams; both counties saw this as a huge, huge match for them and Dublin as it turned out got badly beaten. It would be unfair to take credit from Galway but there may have been something in that the build-up for the Dublin game was quite big whereas the build-up for

the Leinster final was as low as I have seen it."

Thirty one minutes into the Leinster final, Richie Power scores Kilkenny's first point from play, but Galway lead 2-11 to 0-2. On RTE radio, the reaction is incredulous to the point where at times Tom Dempsey is audibly gobsmacked, almost laughing in wonder, not at Kilkenny's misfortune, but because it is so pronounced and hard to swallow. Water is pouring into the vessel from all sides. A huge point from Joe Canning alters the score to 2-12 to 0-2.

"I suppose the general attitude is that it was a major wake-up call," states Dermot Healy, former Kilkenny and Offaly hurling manager. "A shock was the general reaction around. So we don't know really. Training has been behind closed doors and it is a question of whether they can regain the freshness -- that's a major thing in my book. But I expect they would."

Healy, too, agrees that the team emptied itself to some extent beating Dublin, perceived as the primary provincial threat in recent years. "Too much was read into that. I was expecting Kilkenny to beat Dublin easily. The expectation in Kilkenny was that Dublin could beat them but Dublin's performances this year showed they have gone back from a year ago. And when they beat Dublin by so much there was the attitude they were unbeatable. That rubs off on players. Having said that, Galway played some excellent hurling. There was no delaying on the ball, they moved it along very fast; that's what won it for them."

Around Healy people were, he says, "dumbstruck" by what was happening in front of their eyes. "They were pinching themselves to see if this was really happening. The great team of the 1970s ended up like that in 1976, Kilkenny had won all three All-Irelands, minor, under 21 and senior, the year before. But this team is younger, even though some have been around for ten or 12 years, a lot are new. He (Brian Cody) has been bringing in new players all the time."

Injuries are being factored into the post-mortem. Walsh wasn't fully fit. Fennelly didn't feature. Rice came on during the match. Jackie Tyrrell had some hamstring problems. Colin Fennelly went off. JJ Delaney missed the match having been outstanding against Dublin. With most of their key players back, they will expect a different Kilkenny today but injuries don't fully explain how badly they coped with Galway's hurling, how listless the team was in responding.

"Sure this day was going to come anyway," says Power. "After the league final and the display against Dublin, Kilkenny were seen as a team that couldn't be beaten. Unfortunately, there wasn't a hurler or a team born yet that couldn't be beaten. Everyone in Kilkenny got into the mindset that this team was untouchable, to a degree, and I suppose a bit of that filtered through to the players. I think they will get by Limerick but I don't think they will blow Limerick away because it's different for them now coming off a defeat like that. There will be a small shade of doubt there."

Are they less of a team now that they are beaten? "We will find out the answer at 4.0 next Sunday," says Michael Walsh. "I would think they would be chomping at the bit to get back and produce a huge performance, but at the same time every other team in the country are obviously going into a game against Kilkenny now with a different attitude.

"I actually felt the effort they put in to win last year's All-Ireland was absolutely fantastic and I felt this year was going to be a long, tough year. But after the Dublin match and the league final win over Cork they took off again. They were back to the performances of 2008, blowing teams away in the first 15 minutes. We all felt I suppose we could breeze through and now we're waiting to see what will happen on Sunday. It is not what the players would have wanted but in one way it is very exciting and intriguing."

Galway are not being overlooked as having had a say in this. John Power: "If you look at the Clarinbridge team that won the club All-Ireland, they only played second fiddle to O'Loughlins for 20 minutes and then took them apart. Similar to the type of hurling Galway played against Kilkenny, whirlwind stuff, and there's no Clarinbridge man on the Galway team. Like, that is only two years ago. And several Galway teams are capable of winning a club All-Ireland; they have a high standard of hurling. Suppose it was like a volcano, something ready to erupt. And I think when they went back for Anthony Cunningham, they went back for one of their own. There was a little bit of inter-club rivalry and some nasty county finals. At some stage they were going to get their act together.

"Dublin are athletes playing hurling. Without disrespecting the Dublin jersey, they play in straight lines. Galway are producing very talented underage players for the last five or six years. It really didn't come about by accident."

The questions the Galway result raises about Kilkenny's welfare will not all be answered today. That is the trouble. But a win will be a welcome relief.

"All is not lost," states Power. "There were loads of days in my career I got up on a Monday morning sick as sick could be because we were beaten, and we had no way back. These players have a second chance. Really, at the end of the day, the championship is only starting on Sunday. You would prefer them going the other route. But that's the way it is."

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