The hurling fraternity have been blessed with a series of classic All-Ireland finals in recent years, titanic battles that will live long in the memory. 2015 did not add to the collection.
Epic clashes from Septembers past served to paper over the cracks left by a poor summer’s hurling. Sunday’s decider was the final confirmation of a disappointing and regressive couple of months for the game.
Did we ever witness as flat an atmosphere when James Owens sounded the final whistle shortly after 5pm? The Kilkenny supporters, numbered as they were, hardly hung around for the presentation of Liam MacCarthy to Joey Holden. Come their lap of honour, Croke Park was nearing empty.
I met a Kilkenny man departing the stadium and he said even the hens won’t eat out of the cup any more in Kilkenny, they’re fed up of it too. Their dominance is hurting the game. That, however, is hardly their fault. They’ve set the bar and Galway were the latest county to be unsuccessful in trying to reach and surpass Kilkenny’s level.
I had given Galway every chance coming into the game, on the basis of their attitude throughout the summer, their performances in the quarter and semi-finals.
At half-time, it was they who held the momentum. Whether they took sleeping tablets underneath the Hogan Stand, I don’t know. They definitely took something. They were a completely different team upon the change of ends.
Cody’s 11th All-Ireland wasn’t entirely of his or his players’ own making. Galway’s second-half collapse contributed largely to the outcome.
What will bring most pain to the Galway hurlers this week is that this All-Ireland was there for the taking. You had a Kilkenny team who were overcooked on the day, whose hurling in the first half was well below average, whose decision-making was poor. You had Richie Hogan operating on one leg, Richie Power introduced on one leg, Eoin Larkin playing with a broken thumb and Michael Fennelly well shy of full match-fitness.
Still they were first across the mountain top.
Maybe they might do us all a favour and take 2016 off. Unlikely. Heck, they’re already planning for next year. And this is what sets them apart. This latest win will be parked in the next couple of days and focus will turn to next year. You can be sure the post-mortems in Galway will run longer than the celebrations in Kilkenny.
On Sunday, as it has been so often in the past, it was the collective effort of the players that saw Kilkenny over the line.
There is no reliance on one individual. It is about the team. If you can’t serve the team, you’re not welcome.
Jackie Tyrrell, now the holder of nine All-Ireland medals, delivered an impassioned plea at half-time. He was on the sideline throughout. It didn’t matter to him that he wasn’t involved. It wasn’t about him. It was about the jersey on his back.
In the second half, Michael Fennelly exerted considerable influence. TJ Reid stood up. Kilkenny’s character rose to the surface. Richie Hogan landed points when they needed them. Richie Power, he hadn’t hurled all year, and yet he was still able to make scores when coming in. That was the leadership Galway lacked.
Hurling defines Kilkenny. They define hurling. It is up to other counties to challenge their dominance. Tipperary did so in 2010. We were told a new era was dawning. Kilkenny won the next two All-Irelands. We heard more talk of a new era in 2013. Kilkenny won the next two.
In the second half on Sunday, they decided they weren’t going to lose. Galway decided they weren’t going to win.
Galway’s poor mental attitude reflects every team currently sardined into hurling’s chasing pack. When it comes to the crunch against Kilkenny, teams are not standing up to them. They are wilting.
Psychologically, teams believe they are going to be beaten by Kilkenny before a ball is even thrown-in. Their attitude is that ‘we will push them for 50, 55 minutes to make sure we’re in with a shout coming down the stretch’, but do they believe they can beat them to the line. No.
You can never stop for one moment against Kilkenny. The minute you stop, they strike. Galway stopped in the second half. Kilkenny, irrespective if they are ahead by a few or trailing by a few, they will keep hurling.
Galway’s mental attitude was spot on for the first 35 minutes. Did they question themselves at half-time?
Did they say to themselves we should have been more ahead, instead of focusing on driving on, maintaining their tempo into the second period? They came out and Kilkenny outscored them by 0-9 to 0-2 in the first 20 minutes.
Coming into the game, Galway’s form players were Cathal Mannion, Johnny Glynn, Joe Canning and Jason Flynn. Where were they in the second half?
It was left to an 18-year old in attack to carry the fight. And fair play to Conor Whelan. But it says a lot that he was the only man up front willing to fight. Whether it was the occasion or not, but the Galway forwards threw in the towel in the second half.
Testament to the Kilkenny backs too, they never strayed from the roles they were given. Their six backs stayed in position. They didn’t follow their players. They held the line. The wall stood firm.
At the other end, Galway were unsettled by the musical chairs carried out by Anthony Cunningham. Why did Galway move players out of their positions, out of their comfort zone to negate Kilkenny’s big-name players? They got too bogged down with Richie Hogan and TJ Reid. They did the same in the semi-final when they took John Hanbury out of full-back and put in Pádraic Mannion. Remember what happened to him?
Look at John Hanbury’s performance on Sunday. He was extremely solid. Iarla Tannian was unsettled by being moved out of centre-back. Daithí Burke is a better wing-back than centre-back and vice-versa for Tannian.
This was their fourth final defeat since 2001. Their inability to deliver in September is head-scratching.
If Cunningham wants to stay on, he should. Let’s have no blame games here. Let’s get back to business. They should confirm he is staying on in the next week or two. Bring finality to 2015 and turn the page.
Hurling needs to turn a fresh page too. The 2015 championship, the Galway-Tipperary semi-final aside, was low on entertainment, was low on decent hurling.