Tribe must develop killer instinct

Pete Finnerty had a neat way of summing up Galway’s failings a few years back.

To him it came down to one simple question. “How many of them are willing to get themselves sent off?” he was fond of asking (and probably still is).

It wasn’t an existential enquiry, it was a practical enquiry. And Finnerty was entitled to pose it, not only as a member of Galway’s last All-Ireland-winning team but also as someone who’d hurled alongside Sylvie Linnane, Conor Hayes, Ollie Kilkenny, Tony Keady and Gerry McInerney in defence on said team.

Quite a rearguard, wasn’t it? Big men everywhere, except in one corner, and jagged edges aplenty. All of them could hurl and all of them were uncompromisingly, unapologetically hard. And one of them didn’t so much play on the edge as frequently play half a mile the far side of it, but he was still among the first names on Cyril Farrell’s team-sheet. Right, Sylvie?!

So it’s easy to see why Finnerty pines for that land of lost certainties. Don’t get him wrong. His isn’t a plea for some old-style roughhouse approach, which is no longer practical in the game of today anyway. Rather he’s lamenting the county’s long-running lack of mental resolve, their squeamishness, their chronic inability to realise the first step on the road to winning an All-Ireland is a particular state of mind.

On which point, Ger Loughnane was accused of a number of sins during his two years as Galway manager, but nobody has ever disputed his verdict on the group of players he had: a grand bunch of young lads who, the two Cannings apart, lacked the killer instinct.

That goal Richie Power set up for TJ Reid in Portlaoise a fortnight ago. Are there many current Galway defenders who would have gone baldheaded for Power or Reid and risked the yellow card? Are there any? On the 1987-88 team there were six, and they’d have been jostling each other out of the way to be first in line to meet the incoming forward.

Flip the scenario, picture Damien Hayes about to play in Joe Canning for a shooting chance tomorrow and there’s not a single Kilkenny defender who won’t, should the situation demand it, stop Hayes or Canning by whatever means are deemed necessary.

And it’s not just Jackie Tyrrell or Tommy Walsh we’re talking about here. Bright and articulate and ambitious and clean-living, Brian Hogan — to take an example — is the kind of chap any girl would happily bring home to meet Mammy and Daddy (and in his case a girl called Elaine did that some time ago). But you just know that Hogan will do what has to be done, if and when it comes to it, and do it in a heartbeat.

Because that’s what winners do, again and again and again. If you can’t win, make sure you don’t lose. If you can’t create a thing of beauty, don’t stand back and let the other guy do so. That’s partly why Brian Hogan lifted the MacCarthy Cup last September.

And partly why Offaly were lifeless on the table after 10 minutes of the other provincial semi-final last month. Cause of their demise, according to the Laois County Coroner? Death by naivety.

To leave Conor Cooney one on one with David Kenny for an early goal was careless. To leave him one on one with Kenny for a second goal moments later, again with no other defender on hand to come to the rescue, was unforgivable. The third Galway goal featured a goalkeeping double error, calamity piled on mishap. The first Galway goal to involve an element of thoughtful construction on their part was their fourth goal.

Had Offaly not watched a single Kilkenny game these past few years? The importance of killing space in one’s own half is a lesson Brian Cody learned — from Galway, as it happens — in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final and has never forgotten since.

Wing-forwards back on top of midfield for the opposition puckouts; midfield shielding the half-back line; and the half-back line never so far up the field as to leave the full-back line exposed. Cohere, compress, choke. The first thing a team has to be is difficult to break down.

As — it goes without saying — the challengers will need to be tomorrow, when what they’re facing is not so much a test from the All-Ireland champions as a full-cavity search with body screening.

Back when Gowran’s finest was in his absolute pomp, it was often remarked that a DJ Carey goal was worth more than three points to Kilkenny because of the lift it gave them. The wheel has come full circle. Like they did against Cork in the league final, Kilkenny score an early goal — or usually two in rapid succession —– and it’s time to turn off the telly and go for a nice walk.

The one team who got their approach right were Tipperary, who handled the Kilkenny attack with supreme pragmatism in the first half of the 2010 All-Ireland final by repeatedly pulling down the runner. Far better to concede a few frees 40m out than let the man through and risk a dagger to the heart.

Galway’s first and only objective here is to make it to the interval still afloat — because, as Tom Dempsey said of his native Wexford before they took on Kilkenny in the 2007 All-Ireland semi-final, “if they’re not in the game at half-time they won’t be in the game after half-time”.

Then and only then, rather like Grand National jockeys who hunt on the first circuit and get down to riding a race on the second circuit, can they start to think about actually winning the match.

It’s a day for Joe Canning to go wild. It’s a day for an early Galway goal, preferably two of them. It’s a day for the underdogs to hit Kilkenny with a tactical curveball of some sort, as they did so stunningly in the 1986 All-Ireland semi-final. That afternoon in Thurles they employed a three-man midfield as an offensive weapon. Tomorrow they may deploy it as a defensive weapon. So be it.

And yes, on the evidence of James Skehill’s performance against Offaly, dodgy Galway goalkeeping will, like the poor, always be with us. Still, let us hope that tomorrow is the day reliable Galway goalkeeping rears its head.

One romp for Kilkenny thus far hasn’t made Championship 2012 anything less than a blast. A second romp will.

n Want to hear something simplistic? Dublin are bigger, older and wiser than Clare. They also have something to prove after events at O’Moore Park a fortnight ago. All told, this should point to a win for the visitors in Cusack Park tonight.

Simplistic, yes. But sometimes two and two does equal four.

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