AT HALF-TIME in yesterday’s eagerly-awaited Leinster senior hurling final in Croke Park, trailing by just three points, 1-8 to 1-5, after playing against a strong breeze, challengers Galway left the field to a huge ovation from their thousands of supporters in the 31,376 attendance.
There was a buzz around the place, satisfaction that Kilkenny, having dominated their own provincial championship for the past dozen years and more (going for six-in-a-row, and an unprecedented 12 in 13 seasons), were again getting the test everyone had hoped for when Galway were invited into the province in 2009. There was anticipation also, anticipation that Galway, having played with such determination and self-belief in that opening half, and with the wind now behind them, would drive on in the second half, ask questions of Kilkenny they hadn’t been asked in this province at this stage for many a year, see how they would react if they were pushed to the wire.
Halfway into the second half, however, that buzz was gone, was long, long gone. It wasn’t that Kilkenny exploded into life, though eight points to one in those decisive 18 minutes did take the life out of the game; it was that Galway imploded. From a positive, decisive, tactically astute first half performance, wing-forwards lying deep to offer protection to the defence against that strong wind, long direct ball forward to a forward line that was asking questions of the Kilkenny rearguard (the Damien Hayes goal came from a huge, clearance from his own half by midfielder Ger Farragher), Galway became a shapeless, hopeless mess.
With the hard work done in that first half they should have gone on the offensive, pushed their six forwards well up in attack and rained ball down on them. Instead they decided to play tactically, fellas pulling this way and that to try and open a man up for the short puck-out, then try to pass their way sideways, backwards and forwards through the gathering ranks of the Kilkenny defence – crazy stuff against a defence long recognised as being one of the most organised, disciplined and intelligent in the business.
If you want to beat this Kilkenny team then you’ve got to get in behind that half-back line as quickly as possible, as Galway did for the Hayes goal in the first half, did again for a Hayes near-miss just before that; hard, direct, that’s the only way. In Joe Canning, Damien Hayes and Iarla Tannian, Galway had a full-forward line to threaten any defence, if they got ball; wind behind them in that second half the tactic should have been long ball, whether from open play out of defence or from puck-outs; not sky-high ball, which would give that magnificent Kilkenny half-back time to set themselves, but line drives, long and hard. It never happened. Galway tried to pass and run their way through, were stopped time and again, comfortably so. Opportunity missed definitely. Kilkenny were nowhere near their best yesterday, were there for the taking; unfortunately there was no-one there to take them, and this magnificent team marches on.
The story of the game is quickly told; Galway opened the scoring, a point inside 15 seconds by corner-forward Aidan Harte, but it was Kilkenny well in front by the quarter-hour mark, 1-4 to 0-1, Henry Shefflin ghosting in behind Damien Joyce in the 13th minute to drill home a fierce shot. The second quarter was when Galway really showed their mettle however and they outscored Kilkenny 1-4 to 0-4 from there to break, Damien Hayes with the goal, using his strength to hold off Noel Hickey inside the small square and tap home.
It’s that second quarter that makes this loss all the more frustrating for Galway supporters. They went toe-to-toe with Kilkenny and more than held their own, suggesting there was even better to come. Unfortunately, there wasn’t. In the third quarter, even with the luxury of six wides, Kilkenny tacked on eight points to just one for Galway, a Ger Farragher free. The Cats defence, with John Tennyson a first-half replacement for the injured Brian Hogan in the centre, was now coping comfortably with everything Galway threw at them. John Dalton and Jackie Tyrell were well on top in the corners, Noel Hickey was back to his best on the edge of the square, and Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney on the flanks – well, what more can be said of those two. In midfield the two Michaels, Rice and Fennelly, were completely on topwhile up front, with a huge supply of ball, the points started to come. Captain TJ Reid showed well, as did Richie Power, and Henry added four points to his 1-3 first half tally.
It was easy for Kilkenny in the end, all too easy. Galway did put on a bit of a spurt in the final ten minutes, talisman Joe Canning getting on the scoreboard only in the 67th minute, but it was all too late. Kilkenny still very much on course now for that record five-in-a-row All-Ireland titles, Galway knocked back. They can still be a force in this championship, but they have lessons to learn from yesterday, simple lessons.
Kilkenny: PJ Ryan; J Dalton, N Hickey, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, JJ Delaney; M Rice (0-2), M Fennelly; TJ Reid (0-3), E Brennan (0-1), E Larkin (0-1); M Comerford, R Power (0-3), H Shefflin (1-7, 4f, 1 65).
Subs: J Tennyson for B Hogan (29); A Fogarty (0-1) for Comerford (43); R Hogan (0-1) for Brennan (48); J Mulhall for Power (67).
Galway: C Callanan; D Joyce, S Kavanagh, O Canning; D Barry, T Og Regan, D Collins; G Farragher (0-4, 4f); A Cullinane; A Callanan, A Harte (0-1), A Smith; D Hayes (1-1), J Canning (0-2, 1sl), I Tannian (0-1).
Subs: E Lynch (0-1) for Cullinane (25); C Donnellan (0-1) for A Callanan (43); K Hynes (0-1) for Farragher (53); J Gantley for Smith (67).
Ref: M Wadding (Waterford).