A historic day in Croke Park yesterday, Galway crowned Leinster senior hurling champions for the first time after a first-half display of crushing dominance; a day that may also go down in history for another reason, however, the day an empire began to crumble.
Due to the back-door system Kilkenny still have a chance to recover and, given the character of this team, may yet do so but boy, it will take some recovery.
Kilkenny have bestrode the Leinster championship for the last 15 years, a sporting colossus. On 13 occasions they were crowned champions, denied on the other occasion (2004) only by a late sucker-punch Wexford goal. Reigning All-Ireland and Allianz Hurling League champions, they were expected to win again yesterday and thus put themselves into prime position for a ninth All-Ireland title in those 15 years.
That it didn’t happen is due to an opening half-hour performance of truly epic proportions by Galway, at the end of which they led a shell-shocked Kilkenny in front of a shell-shocked crowd of 22,171 by a whopping 16 points, 2-11 to 0-1.
Galway were a team possessed, a team hurling with demonic intensity and ferocity, and indeed they do have demons to exorcise, decades of demons.
When Joe Canning leaped and grabbed a high ball in the third minute then goaled, throwing the mighty Jackie Tyrrell aside in the process, when David Burke powered through for a second goal in the 23rd minute, when a succession of Galway forwards scored a succession of points in between, it was as though all of Galway’s old fears and all of Galway’s old failures and all of Galway’s old fatalism were being hurled aside in favour of a determination to succeed.
Oh, it was a sight to behold, even if a sight scarcely credible.
Not until the 20th minute did Kilkenny register a score, a Henry Shefflin pointed free; not until the 31st minute would they get their second, their first from play, by Richie Power; not since 1990 and a Leinster semi-final lossto Offaly have they been so thoroughly outplayed in an opening half.
The second half brought some relief for the reigning champions, a half in which they restored some pride.
They had the shortest of breaks, back on the field not just before Galway but before even referee James McGrath. McGrath was probably looking for his whistle and his cards, which he seemed to have forgotten in a first half where both sides were allowed away with all kinds of hits, holds and foul tackles.
Galway did get the first score, a point from the outstanding Cyril Donnellan, but Kilkenny would win the half, 2-7 to 0-9. The goals came from Richie Hogan and Shefflin, who also got the bulk of the points, albeit from frees, and it did count for something. In truth, however, Galway were in containment mode at that stage, still capable of adding their own points when needed, no one more visible on that score than the superb Canning.
A triumph for Galway then, a badly-needed boost for hurling not just in the West but in Leinster itself, where teams like Offaly, Wexford and Dublin will surely take heart.
Tactically they got it so right, Johnny Coen starring at corner-back, his pace offering extra cover to Kevin Hynes and Fergal Moore, David Collins forming a nigh-impregnable wall alongside Niall Donoghue and Tony Óg Regan (a pair of ‘horses’ now in that family!) in the half-back line, Iarla Tannian looking like an incarnation of Kilkenny’s absent Michael Fennelly in midfield, Andy Smith a dynamo alongside Iarla.
And speaking of dynamos, what about Damien Hayes? If Galway had one of those new-fangled GPS trackers on Hayes yesterday it surely must have burned out!
The Burkes, Niall and David, both did what Galway forwards have failed to do for too many years, notched big scores on the big day, while inside, well, two match-winners in Canning and Cyril Donnellan, youngster Conor Cooney not scoring but still playing his part.
End of an empire? Perhaps, though I still wouldn’t bet against this Kilkenny team!
But if Galway can now find some consistency then it could also be a beginning, and in Canning they have their emperor-in-waiting.
Scorers for Galway: J Canning 1-10 (7f); C Donnellan 0-5; D Burke 1-2; N Burke 0-2; D Collins, D Hayes, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Kilkenny: H Shefflin 1-8 (7f); R Hogan 1-0; R Power 0-2; M Rice 0-1.
Subs for Galway: J Glynn (Cooney 53); J Regan (Tannian (57); T Haran (N Burke 61); J Cooney (Donnellan 71).
Subs for Kilkenny: A Fogarty (Fennelly 23 inj); M Rice (P Hogan 27); M Ruth (Reid 58).
Referee: J McGrath (Westmeath).