Sunny side up for the men of Galway

Here we are, eyeing one of this decade’s most intriguing hurling contests.
Sunny side up for the men of Galway

Why does the atmosphere feel so subdued? There has been little of the bite expected when anticipating these encounters, little of the sovereign bitterness. Pete Finnerty, sterling Galway wing back of the 1980s, once stated that hurling is a wonderful game except that Tipperary play it.

Flat lead up because these counties are out of their comfort zone? You would think so. Galway are nervous as slight favourites (especially since they occupy a warmer status in public consciousness). Tipperary are uncertain as slight underdogs.

Both experiences cut against established grain. Galway does being favourite like this coastal county does sunshine, irregularly but with a piercing beauty on good days. Galway hurling people like feeling on the back foot, due to associating best days with this step.

Tipperary does being uncertain like this inland county does overcast, unsettled by the absence of what is regarded as a right. Tipperary hurling people like feeling on the front foot, due to a marked capacity, over the last five decades, for amnesia. A powerful day around Cashel feels less like a privilege than a powerful day around Kinvara.

This weekend’s first point of interest, are these dynamics acknowledged? Neither contestant quite knows what to expect of itself. The most durable of clichés doubles in force: A good start might be way more than halfway there.

This sliver of advantage lies with Tipperary, in light of Galway’s five-week layoff since the dismissal of Wexford in the Leinster final. The team who appeared a mere fortnight ago, as per Tipp’s deserved but unconvincing win over Clare, typically settles to a rhythm quicker. I reckon Galway will thrive if they allow Tipperary no more than one goal in the first half.

How different does May’s Munster quarter-final pan out if Tipperary convert their early goal chances? Those opportunities were spurned and Cork grew into contention. To an extent, this Tipp season has centred on reclaiming the confidence drained by passing up said chances.

You could sense, once John McGrath slotted their second goal in the qualifier tie with Dublin, the whole team relax. For the previous 21 minutes, Tipp had been an underwhelming force, same as in their showing against Westmeath.

What is the case for Galway? For starters, Colm Callanan is a much better goalkeeper than Darren Gleeson and Darragh Mooney. Both their backs and forwards are physically equipped to trouble Tipperary in a manner other teams are not. Equally, their midfield pairing of David Burke and Johnny Coen looks stronger than what Michael Breen and Brendan Maher offered so far.

Again, Galway possess the ‘cut’ factor to an extent not seen this summer in any other side. Cork have been excellent but are more ‘slit’ than ‘cut’.

Those other teams are not using aerial ball to anything like Galway’s extent. A fortnight ago, Clare’s two first-half goals featured a common factor: James Barry’s poorness under a high delivery. For the second one, his body position was all wrong, ensuring any breaking ball would fall infield rather than to the safer precincts of the wing.

Yet Clare’s use of high deliveries was sporadic and not simply because all their positives on the day were haphazard, so slipshod was much of their hurling. No, defensive teams (which Clare largely remain) try such deliveries infrequently in games because their pattern of play in training eschews this gambit.

Galway are different. Galway will check out the Tipperary backs’ fetching ability for 70 minutes and more. Does this factor not deliver two or more goals? Manager Michael Ryan is caught between the unproven (Donagh Maher and Tomás Hamill) and the declining (James Barry and Michael Cahill). Again, look at the manner in which Clare sub Peter Duggan discommoded Séamus Kennedy in the fetching stakes.

Ryan is also caught with his own personal Charlie Carter moment, following Cathal Barrett’s removal from the panel. If he retains the All-Ireland without Barrett, Ryan will have absolute control of Tipperary hurling for several years. If he does not retain, every sort of a galoot will request his head, which would be ridiculous, since Ryan has proved himself, whatever Sunday’s result, a man not just of sound judgment but of sound principles.

Still, that dynamic is there and we do not know how it will spool in his players’ psyche. Some lads love an excuse. The absence of Cathal Barrett would be an excuse.

Downsides for Galway? Centre-back Gearóid McInerney is powerful but no stylist. Tipperary could put Noel McGrath to hurl on the drift from centre forward, which might lure McInerney into uncomfortable areas of the field.

This rejig would send Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher to wing forward, where there could be a physical mismatch with Aidan Harte. For same reason of physique, Galway are likely to want Pádraic Mannion as Dan McCormack’s marker.

Make no mistake, the stakes are higher than your average All-Ireland semi-final. The bookmakers hold that the winner will be champion.

By 2017’s lights, Galway are three to four points ahead of 2016’s showing. By the same measure, Tipperary are three to four points off 2016’s showing. This relay implies Galway victory by five points.

They are plenty good enough and should deliver. But around this group flies remembrance of chokes past.

Last September, Tipperary faced their ‘if not now, when?’ moment. A sort of fury, the voltage of summoned hurt, sent them through the test. They hurled brilliantly when the price of brilliance was absolute belief and commitment.

That victory was meant to herald not just a pinnacle but a vista, a run of successive titles to rival their fiercest rivals’ 21st-century achievement. This season, since NHL final defeat, Tipperary have stumbled around at the summit. But the prospect of that vista is still there.

This month, Galway face the same moment, the same audit. Sport holds no more daunting experience.

This Sunday, Galway should find sufficient fury, with sunshine general in the county next week.

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