So often in recent decades a Galway senior hurling team has come to Croke Park with hopes high and so often, against Cork especially, those hopes have been dashed.
Having shattered Kilkenny in their last Croke Park outing with a first-half performance of pace, power and precision, winning their first Leinster title in the process, Galway were cast in the dreaded role of favourites for this All-Ireland semi-final joust with their old nemesis from Munster. The hopes were there again but so was the fear they would once again find a way to lose a game they were expected to win. Not this game. Not when you have players like Portumna ‘twins’ Joe Canning and Damien Hayes who became used to producing big displays on big days during that club’s three All-Ireland wins in four years. Not when you have defenders of the calibre of Johnny Coen, Fergal Moore, Niall Donoghue and Tony Óg Regan. Not when you have a management team of the combined hurling intelligence of Anthony Cunningham, Tom Helebert and Mattie Kenny.
Galway were ready yesterday, and needed to be, because they were truly tested by Cork. Under new management, several new players blooded this season, both teams are on a learning curve this year but Cork are coming from further back. When they met in the qualifier series last year Cork were hammered 2-23 to 1-14 and though they did make the league final this year they were well beaten by Kilkenny, lost to Tipperary in the Munster semi-final and weren’t overly impressive in any of their three subsequent championship wins.
To make any impression in an All-Ireland semi-final they needed to step up their game considerably. They did so, in the first half especially.
It was Galway who struck the first point, firebrand Damien Hayes on target within half-a-minute of throw-in, but thereafter and for the next 30 minutes it was Cork looking the more impressive side. The Rebels led on the half-hour mark, 0-9 to 0-7, all three half-forwards scoring (Paudie O’Sullivan a superb hat-trick), free-taker Patrick Horgan unerring from placed balls and it was beginning to look like it would be another one of those days for Galway.
Before half-time however the ship was steadied. Joe Canning had two points, David Burke another brace, against a point each for Luke O’Farrell and Patrick Horgan, leaving the sides level at the break (0-11 apiece).
Galway were the ones now slightly favoured by the breeze but Cork took an early lead, another Horgan free. Four points in-a-row from Canning (two), Hayes and Niall Burke, however, set the Tribesmen on their way giving them a three-point lead in the 46th minute (0-15 to 0-12).
It was a lead hard-earned against a Cork defence in which every player stood strong, none more so than veteran Seán Óg Ó hAilpín. You had to feel sorry though for Brian Murphy, given the nigh-impossible task of containing Joe Canning but doing as well as any man could, in the circumstances.
Even that far from the finish line Galway now went into protect mode, dropped extra players deeper and deeper, crowding out the area in front of goal. ‘Whatever else happens we’re not going to concede a goal’, that seemed to be the thinking, though in truth, on this day anyway the Cork attack didn’t possess any great goal-threat and never managed a shot at James Skehill. Anthony Nash was a bit busier and one save he made, deflecting a Niall Burke rasper out for a 65 which Joe Canning casually tapped over, was outstanding.
That defensive mindset worked. Cork kept battling but managed only five further points, Coen and Donoghue really to the fore at the back for Galway, Hayes and Canning still doing damage on the scoreboard and in general play, Iarla Tannian and Andy Smith now on top in midfield and as auxiliary defenders. Five points was the difference between the teams at the end and there was no question about the merit of either the win or the margin.
A concern for Galway now though as they head into an All-Ireland final — 14 wides, half of those from the three half-forwards from very scoreable positions. Straighten out the shooting and Galway can go into one more game this year with hopes high.
Scorers for Galway: J Canning 0-11 (5fs, 2 65s), D Hayes 0-4, J Regan, N Burke, D Burke 0-2 each, A Smith 0-1.
Scorers for Cork: P Horgan 0-7 (6fs), P O’Sullivan 0-3, P Cronin, C McCarthy, J Coughlan, L O’Farrell, C Naughton, D Sweetnam, A Nash (f) 0-1 each.
Sub for Galway: D Glennon for C Cooney (54), C Donnellan for J Regan (62), J Glynn for N Burke (66), J Cooney for D Burke (inj. 73).
Subs for Cork: C Naughton for C McCarthy (35), D Sweetnam for Lehane (45), S Moylan for O’Farrell (51), N McCarthy for Coughlan (55), D Kearney for McLoughlin (68).
Referee: B Gavin (Offaly).
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