Same again won’t work for Galway

Let’s begin where we left off back in late May, on the eve of the championship, with the text message sent by a glum young man from south Tipperary a few hours after Kilkenny had sauntered to the National League title.

“They should just hand over the MacCarthy Cup now and let us get on with watching Euro 2012 and the Olympics,” declared the unhappy (albeit not half as unhappy as he would be on the evening of August 19th) youth.

Chances are Liam O’Neill will still end up handing over the MacCarthy Cup to Eoin Larkin tomorrow evening after the Terminator — more battered than before, but still tooled up and still scenting blood — kicks in the door in the final scene to exact predictable revenge on the opponent who gave him such a going-over earlier in the movie.

Or maybe this is a different film. Joe Versus the Volcano. With Joe winning.

No matter. The summer yielded far more than could reasonably have been expected on the evening of the league final. Championship 2012 was a championship, not a lap of honour.

Galway, just when we’d begun to despair of them ever doing anything again, did a job on the All-Ireland champions in the Leinster final and thereby kindled a flame for the rest.

Whatever about the destination, we had a journey.

Should the westerners win tomorrow it would be the most richly merited All-Ireland title in history, surpassing even Clare’s achievement in beating Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary — twice — in 1997.

Defeating the current Kilkenny team twice in the same year? That would constitute a feat off the scale and straight into the annals.

In passing it’s as easy to sympathise with Anthony Cunningham’s charges, forced to face the champions twice in the space of three months, as it is to point to the asterisk that would overhang a Kilkenny back-door All Ireland. But the latter’s performance in the semi-final all but erased the asterisk, and Galway knew the terms and conditions when they signed on the dotted line. Either way, tomorrow’s imperative entails taking the tide at the flood. There is no guarantee they will come this way again under Cunningham in the future.

Karol Mannion, the former Roscommon footballer, says of Cunningham’s time coaching St Brigid’s that he had “a good eye for where to get the best out of every player and had everyone playing at their peak”.

It chimes with how Tom Helebert, one of the Galway selectors, defines the management’s philosophy of the game: “trying to get the right ball to players in the right positions and have them make good decisions on the ball.”

At their best, Galway have done that in spades this summer. Thoughtful stick passes to men in space, not too much handpassing and minimal taking of the sliotar into unnecessary contact. Critically, all of this has been enacted at speed — the one guaranteed way of avoiding Kilkenny’s roaming bands of muggers.

Then, a lead built up, a page is ripped from the Portumna playbook of a few years ago. Midfielders back into defence, most of the forwards back to midfield and erect the barrier there. “Now — let’s see you try and play through that if you’re so good. Ha!”

Against Cork they even won a big championship match despite playing indifferently, a minor art form in itself — and did so without the services of Cyril Donnellan, who’d hit five points in the Leinster final. Same old Galway? Not this time.

Granted, there’s nothing overly clever about belting balls out of defence to nobody in particular in an undermanned forward line, as was the case in the closing quarter of the semi-final.

But such edges will be sanded away over time. Galway have talked a good game, coached a good game and are increasingly playing a good game.

Fergal Moore is everything a modern corner-back should be: poised, mobile, comfortable on both back and front foot. Johnny Coen is the Young Hurler of the Year in waiting. Iarla Tannian has been transformed from a fleeting forward presence to a midfielder who works a shift every day. Damien Hayes, deployed by turns as a corner-forward, a wing-forward and a firestarter in front of midfield, has turned back time. And if ever there was a forward with the potential to take ownership of Croke Park in September, it’s the Galway number 14.

The care and attention given on the coaching field to combating the dropping ball was patently clear last time out. Of the 19 puckouts Anthony Nash took in the second half of the semi-final, Cork won only two he went long with. If Tony Óg Regan et al can’t catch the sliotar tomorrow they’ll bat it away, and if they can’t bat it away they’ll have Iarla Tannian and Andy Smith coming round the back to snap up the crumbs. This is what Tom Helebert means when he talks of “the importance of second-phase and third-phase possession”.

Reasons to be mildly optimistic? A few.

Galway have a chance because they’ve been Brian Cody’s most obdurate, most annoying, most dangerous opponents; no county has lowered his colours more often in the championship arena.

They have a chance, and always will, because they have Joe Canning.

Above all they have a chance because they’re not a Munster team. Since the back door was fully introduced Kilkenny have played 22 championship games against Munster opposition, won 19, drawn one and lost two. Since 2006 their average winning margin against Munster opposition has been nine points.

What will not work here for Cunningham, however, is a repeat of the trick from the Leinster final, for the champions will see them and raise them. More than any county, Galway know — or ought to know — that.

In 1986 they went back to the well in the All Ireland final with the same bucket they’d used for the semi-final, only for Farmer Crowley to chase them off his land with a shotgun.

Tomorrow July’s hunter becomes the hunted.

The champions will not allow Regan to catch three puckouts unchallenged, as he did in that second half against Cork. They won’t let Canning get one-on-one with a defender within 40 metres of goal, not after what happened in the first couple of minutes of the Leinster final, and they’ll try to prevent Moore and Coen charging out with the sliotar, a la Seamus Hickey in 2007.

For their part Galway will make sure they don’t have three defenders standing gawking as Henry Shefflin flits in to meet a cross, as was the case for his goal two months ago. And as an updated variation on their theme that afternoon it’ll be no surprise if Coen is deployed as a spare man around the half-back line, as he was in the All-Ireland U21 semi-final between the counties at Semple Stadium a fortnight ago.

This is a day for counterpunching, for remaining compact, for ensuring the outcome is still a going concern at half-time and, hopefully, that they’re still within hailing distance entering the final furlong. Galway are, broadly speaking, not built to come from behind.

Brian Cody accepted the rap for the Leinster final at Kilkenny’s post-mortem. He hadn’t, he admitted, been on his game — or words to that effect. Even Homer nods. He isn’t in the habit of nodding a second time.

The planets have swung into alignment for them these past six weeks. This is not the same Kilkenny team beaten in the Leinster final. JJ back, Henry fitter, Tommy Walsh in some kind of groove again. Above all they have Michael Fennelly, and when they have Michael Fennelly they look like they have 16 men.

For last season’s Hurler of the Year is more than merely a midfielder. He adds drive to the attack when he thrusts forward, he acts as a seventh defender when he drops back and he’s always looking to get on the ball. On the debit side, Eoin Larkin and Richie Power have mislaid their springtime form and David Herity had a bad case of flightiness in the semi-final.

A giant game of bumper cars can be expected at midfield. After that, much will come down to the issue of which side manages to channel cleaner ball forward.

The challengers’ game demands accurate pointshooting from 50 metres. That will not easily be accomplished with wasp-striped jerseys swarming all over them, but they mustn’t make the mistake of hurrying their shots.

And Kilkenny are weighed down with forwards who’ll score goals as happily as they’ll score points; their opponents are not.

Fool me twice, shame on me. Galway’s summer, Galway’s journey — but Kilkenny’s destination.

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