Before we get into the madness of the last five minutes, and perhaps its overriding cause was really nothing deeper than Kilkenny’s lack of height in midfield, let us pay due tribute to Galway.
Erratic, unknowable, frustrating Galway. The stone in his shoe that Brian Cody simply cannot get rid of.
They’ve been there since his second season in charge, hassling him and pestering him and more than once prompting doctrinal sea-change, and they just won’t go away. No county has given Cody the grief Galway have.
And on Sunday they managed something that even for them was novel. Defeat would have been predictable, victory a predictable surprise. Nothing as common or garden as that for Galway. Oh no. Instead they came from nine points down with four minutes left to gain a draw. There isn’t much, good and bad, that Galway haven’t achieved against Kilkenny over the past 30 years. But this was a new one.
Thus the transition from inhuman, relentless, all-conquering Catbots of a few years back to sometimes brilliant, frequently imprecise mortals who bear gifts for the opposition continues.
Kilkenny – Kilkenny! — failing to close out such a gimme? Incredible. It makes for wonderful entertainment and must be driving Cody absolutely bonkers. Anthony Cunningham’s championship record against him now reads 50%. He won’t be too happy about that either.
It was far from an epic, of course. The first half was scrappy and disjointed and tetchy in the extreme. Had the final whistle been blown after 65 minutes, comment would have been confined to two fleeting topics — that Kilkenny had rediscovered their mojo and Galway had indeed confirmed the deepest fears of their supporters — before quickly switching to some more pressing matter. Move along there now, nothing else to say. Now the match will be spoken about for ever and a day.
There’s another very good reason why it will be celebrated. It featured a sight unwitnessed in hurling in modern times, a sight straight out of the pages of Carbery: three legends of the era plucking thunderbolts from the skies in the course of the same game.
Henry Shefflin. Came on to a rousing cheer, won a converted free and off his weaker side floated over the most delicately judged of points from the most unforgiving of angles for what looked like the winner.
Tommy Walsh. Came on to an even bigger cheer, scored a point and set up 1-1, the assist for the goal a neatly zapped low ball to TJ Reid. Nor did he make the mistake, as he had when introduced against Offaly at Nowlan Park a fortnight earlier, of trying too hard and attempting to play every position.
And Joe Canning. Goals, points, penalties, assists and, above all, leadership. It was the most mature and balanced performance of his inter-county career. Not because he transcended the occasion, not because he shot the lights out but because he continually made himself relevant. One didn’t have to be a Galway supporter, or even a Galway sympathiser on the day, to have been gladdened by his equaliser.
The great players grab hold of the moments that matter and make them their own. On Sunday three of the most celebrated hurlers of the age did exactly that. Watching the opening round of the World Cup this past week and a bit has been uplifting. Being present in Tullamore on Sunday to see this communal seizing of the day was nothing short of life-affirming. One punter spoke on social media of the afternoon’s plethora of “Oh my God!” moments; that summed it up perfectly. And he was from Tipp.
Clearly Kilkenny possessed an extra gear that Galway lacked. But Kilkenny also possessed Eoin Murphy and they needed to. No Murphy and how many goals do Galway score? Seven? Eight? It is far from a bizarre proposition; watch the video. If forwards win games and defences win championships, the MacCarthy Cup will not be moving to Noreside in September. Exhibit A: the defending in the lead-up to the fifth goal, with nobody deciding it might be a good idea to stand off in case the ball broke behind. Farcical in the extreme.
On a day for heavy lifting, the absence of Kilkenny’s wrecking ball proved crucial. Michael Fennelly doesn’t do subtle but he has heft and presence and pace and penetration. He’d also have offered the half-back line a shield during the closing five minutes. In Canning, Conor Cooney and Jonathan Glynn, the underdogs had forwards big enough to horse their way through, and Jason Flynn is no slip of a lad either. This was a forward line consciously built for battle.
Whether the events of the last five minutes amounted to Cody’s side falling asleep on the job, indicated deeper structural problems or — as is usually the case in these situations — was a combination of both is hard to be definitive about. The obvious quick fix entails Jackie Tyrrell returning to the corner to add ballast to the full-back line for the replay, while Richie Power’s injury will presumably mean a start for Tommy Walsh.
To declaim blithely that the Kilkenny team of a few years ago wouldn’t have collapsed in this manner is idle. That Kilkenny team is lost and gone forever. In fact, here’s a suggestion: from now on let’s ban any mention of the Kilkenny team of a few years ago, not alone because it is a redundant yardstick — no team can do what the most successful team in the history of the sport did or should be expected to — but also because it is an unfair cudgel with which to beat the current lot and the players to come. Fair enough?
That said, Cody will have been pleased with the total his charges posted; 3-22 was light years ahead of the 0-18 per game they averaged last summer and back in the same ballpark as the 2-20 they averaged in 2011-12. On Sunday they produced something they were incapable of dragging out of themselves in 2012: the old familiar withering burst of speed.
The punishment for the mishaps in their own half of the field is a heavy one, an extra match that Galway won’t mind but Kilkenny didn’t need. Just when the latter might have assumed that the Saturday evenings and the qualifiers were, like, so last summer and they could return to being Sunday boys again.
The replay becomes the most meaningful match of the summer to date. Victory will guarantee a quarter-final ticket and inoculate against a defeat in the Leinster final. Lose to Dublin on Sunday week and the vanquished will even be able to spin a line about being tired after playing on three successive weekends — a preposterous notion in this age of advanced sports science, but there you go.
The loudest and most beguiling statement of the championship so far remains Cork’s declaration against Clare.
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