IF this is a sign of things to come later in the summer, bring it on!
What a match, what an exhibition of hurling in this National Hurling League Division One final in Thurles yesterday evening!
In deference to what was happening in another field, in another code, 7pm was an unusual throw-in time for a big game, but it mattered not.
Semple Stadium was bathed in sunshine as the two teams took the field and thus it remained throughout 70 magnificent minutes of hurling, dusk falling only after the final whistle.
Toe to toe they went at it from the first minute, blow for blow, net-bursting goals at either end, superb point-taking in a first half that throbbed with an energy that left the 14,200 announced attendance breathless at the break.
By then Galway led 2-12 to 1-11 after playing into the slight breeze – with almost a score a minute in a contest of the highest quality. Surely, we thought, they can’t maintain this pace, not at this early stage of the season, and indeed the second period did see an easing in the scoring stakes; the intensity levels, however, remained high.
Though it was the Galwegians applying most of the pressure in that second half, which saw them emerge eventually as comfortable and worthy winners, Cork too continued to play their part and never gave up the fight.
A game, and a winning team, more than worthy of the occasion.
Galway had the opening score, in the second minute, and a thing of beauty it was; wing-forward Damien Hayes won possession deep in the right corner and was seemingly boxed out by Seán Óg O hAilpín. But with a sweet dummy, a step inside, and Damien was on his way towards the posts with only one thing on his mind. There was only one outcome – a goal, and he flung his hurley high into the air in joyous celebration.
Cork, however, were soon on the board, one tower of the twins – Michael Cussen on the wing – proving his worth with two points, corner-forward Ben O’Connor adding to that with the first of his two sidelines from 45m (one from each wing), and the game was tied in the 18th minute, 1-3 to 0-6.
Two points from the deadly-accurate Ger Farragher – both from long-range places balls – regained the lead for Galway, when Cork struck for a goal and again it was a beauty. Ben O’Connor released his Newtownshandrum clubmate Cathal Naughton for a run which ended with the tyro booting the ball to the net from distance, displaying the prowess that once had him on cross-channel soccer trials.
Instantly, however, Galway replied, as that young hurling genius Joe Canning announced his presence on the pitch, grabbing a high Donal Barry centre, rounding Eoin Dillon, and crashing to the net. Before the day was out Joe would add five points to that goal, and you had to feel for Dillon, thrown in at the deep end here after Eoin Cadogan’s injury. On this form no full-back in the country was going to hold the Portumna man and for a guy making his first start of this year, the newcomer did well to limit Joe to that 1-5.
That goal put Galway in the driving seat again, and with their defence coping superbly with the Cork attack, keeper Colm Callanan in stunning form, Ger Farragher outstanding in midfield, the likes of Cyril Donnellan, Andy Smith and Aidan Harte all getting on the scoresheet, they extended the lead at the break to those four points.
"That was the foundation for the win," said Galway manager John McIntyre afterwards, and he was spot on.
The second half was again played at a great intensity, but after two points to increase their lead immediately after the restart (one each from Joe Canning and Aidan Harte) Galway held the whip hand from there to the finish and never allowed Cork closer than four. Cork had their chances, and Callanan was again called on a couple of times, not least to save a searing penalty shot from Patrick Horgan, but with Shane Kavanagh and Tony Óg Regan controlling the middle, Ger Farragher continuing to excel in midfield, sub Joe Gantley also making an impression up front, the westerners gradually pulled away. "Who knows, we might meet again later in the season," said Kavanagh, on receiving the cup. Maybe, but on this evidence, Cork have some learning to do.
Scorers for Galway: J Canning 1-5; G Farragher 0-6 (0-4 frees, 0-1 65); D Hayes 1-1; A Harte 0-3; A Smith 0-2; J Gantley 0-2; I Tannian, D Burke, C Donnellan, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Cork: C Naughton 1-1; B O’Connor 0-4 (0-2 s/l); J Gardiner 0-3 (0-1 65); P Horgan 0-3 (0-1 pen); K Murphy 0-2; M Cussen 0-2; R Curran, J O’Connor, 0-1 each.
Subs for Galway: J Gantley (Tannian 53); K Hynes (Smith 62); A Callanan (Burke inj. 68).
Subs for Cork: M Walsh (Seán Óg O hAilpín 49); J O’Connor (McLoughlin 49); P O’Sullivan (K Murphy 58).
Referee: James Owens (Wexford).