It was a neat reverse of the 2008 scene, when Cork had edged out Galway, but this season’s edition has an element of regime change about it. The Tribesmen had seven points to spare and continue their development, while it’s likely that some of their opponents will not play inter-county hurling again.
As a game, it stuttered until the last seven minutes, the cold, rain and floodlights suggesting a national league fixture which had wandered, blinking, onto the main stage. Galway’s sharpness showed the benefit of their games against Kilkenny and Clare, but Ben O’Connor – again – carried the fight for Cork, and Galway boss John McIntyre admitted afterwards he’d had to adjust his side’s alignment.
“In the first half, when Cork went six-four up, we brought Joe Canning out as a third midfielder to stop their momentum a little bit. Once or twice the ball went in to the Cork square where we only had two players, but there was method to our madness – we had to disrupt Cork.”
Not that Canning was ineffectual. He lifted six first-half frees over the bar from all over the field, like an adult playing on a GO-games pitch, with near-robotic accuracy. Call him the Canningator: if he replaces Arnold as Governor of California, no hurling side will weep at his departure.
He had backing from brother Ollie and Ger Farragher, who won an ocean of loose ball at midfield, but everywhere Galway’s appetite was evident, and Cork couldn’t settle.
“We’ve been working hard telling them skill alone won’t win All-Irelands,” said McIntyre, “They have to back it up with work rate, intensity and mental strength. We’ve been working behind the scenes on that a lot – we’re no different to any other county that way.”
The Leesiders held onto the Galway coat-tails and there was a point in it at the break.
“At half-time we were in a little bit of a hole, only a point up having played with the wind,” said McIntyre. “We drove home to them that we’d had bad wides and misused possession, but we felt we had Cork’s measure in every aspect bar the breaking ball.
“We knew the game was there for us if we had the heart and the commitment and if we reflected our preparations since last December. And in fairness to the Galway players, they all stood up and did their county proud.”
The game turned decisively when Galway’s Kevin Hayes collected a dropping ball on the right wing late on.
“Kevin Hayes, or Chunky as he’s known, played a great pass into Joe Canning, and the strange thing about that is finesse wouldn’t normally be part of his make-up,” said Galway selector Joe Connolly.
“In fairness he looked up and spotted Joe free. Maybe it was the Portumna to Portumna factor. You have to credit Donal Óg for saving from Joe a second time, but Joe Gantley was there to finish.
“He missed a goal in the last minute against Tipperary in the league and the lads have been needling him since, but hopefully this will make up for it.”
There was still time for Cork to rescue it – substitute Niall McCarthy broke through the Galway cover and the goal didn’t beckon so much as wave furiously.
“Niall was unlucky,” said Cork boss Denis Walsh. “Just as he was throwing up the ball it went away from him and he had to go at it – it was unfortunate. If that had gone in, it would have energised us and maybe put them on the back foot.
“He was very unlucky, he did everything right. He had to take a falling step to hit the shot and just hit the angle.”
Walsh said with some justification that he thought it was maybe a two-point game but didn’t begrudge Galway their win. After that let-off they stormed home down the closing straight with a procession of points.
Their first-half wides will worry John McIntyre, as will a couple of careless challenges by John Lee that might have resulted in a red card. Cork’s problems are more acute, with Denis Walsh acknowledging later that appetite could be an issue for some players: four of the starting 15 starred in Cork’s All-Ireland win a decade ago.
Joe Connolly paid tribute to Cork: “We’re undying in our admiration for their character and hurling skills. If they go they have left a fantastic legacy. They stood up when they had to be counted. It’s what we’re trying to imbue in our lads. If we could get what they were into our lads we’d be very happy as management.”
Next Sunday, Galway saddle up and ride again.
“We have an ambush coming down the road in Waterford next week,” said McIntyre, “We don’t have much time to dwell on this, which might be a good thing.
“There’s a lot of journalists here and I’m appealing to ye not to blow Galway up too much,” added the Galway manager, taking off his sports editor of the Connacht Tribune hat for a second.
“Waterford are very experienced, very seasoned, and it’ll be a last stand for them next weekend.”
Last stands? Must be the season for them.