Where are Kilkenny?
Two ways important and one way unimportant, this question frames the weekend. Cursed things first, though. The world of hurling well knows the dismissive factor, the grig of one county’s unparalleled prominence over a decade and a half.
General Public, hearing any such query, reaches for a conversational bayonet: ‘Who cares where Kilkenny are? Have we not seen enough of that crowd on big days? Let them feck off for a while. Right off…’
General Public would prefer to see Wexford in the Leinster Final, same as last year. The little fish are big draws.
I understand the sentiment but consider the implement blunt. There are two compelling facets to Sunday’s Leinster final meeting.
First, Galway’s showing will annotate their psyche. They are All-Ireland champions but did not beat Kilkenny in 2017. Doing so in 2018 would indicate imminent dominance, control of the kind that captures two or three titles in a row.
Galway look nicely fixed. Although a touch short in defensive cover, attacking options include a potent rhyme on the bench, Jason Flynn and Jonathan Glynn. Having been a sub against Kilkenny, Glynn started the following weekend against Wexford at full forward and shredded their defensive set up.
Flynn is one of Ireland’s most naturally gifted hurlers. However paradoxically, he forever looks like a gazelle that could turn into a leopard.
So Galway are hot on self-belief. The ingredients lie to hand. David Burke, their captain, remarked this week of recent Kilkenny outfits: “They were kind of this unbeatable team.”
Not that Galway, on Burke’s account, were ever overawed. “I think we were always able to beat them on a given day,” he continued. “I think it’s just belief and mindset really, to be honest.”
Correct about the conviction factor. Many observers feel Galway simply could not get their head around overcoming Kilkenny in the 2015 senior final, one of the poorest deciders in recent history.
As of 2018, there is no doubt as yet about their condition. Galway overran Kilkenny during their round-robin meeting in Salthill on May 27, shooting eight points on the spin during the final quarter. Although Walter Walsh netted in added time, cosmetically reducing the margin to single figures, the game still panned out 23 scores to 13 scores, 1-22 to 2-11.
Call it as it was. Last day out against Galway, Kilkenny were pretty much crushed. Next Sunday, they might not need to win but they do need to perform at a much higher level.
Else, fungal doubts will spore. Nor was the U21s’ dismal showing against Galway last week any help in this regard.
That second compelling angle? Kilkenny’s showing could be taken as a general audit on hurling. This season, they rejigged and went with short puckouts, 25-yard balls at the back, candidates running off the receiver’s shoulder so as to get the ball into midfield.
Nub? Avoiding unfavourable deliveries to the opposition half back line.
This season, Kilkenny have been up (won the league) and down (unconvincing against Dublin and Wexford in the round-robin, poor against Galway). Where are they really at? More to the point, by implication, where is hurling really at?
Are a rejigged Kilkenny dressed for weather that has passed? Last season, the bar became Galway’s power hurling rather than the middle third intricacies of Wexford and Waterford. If Galway beat an intricate Kilkenny, whither intricacies?
We shall see. Here is what I reckon about the All-Ireland Champions. Their forwards are rising lethal. Given good ball, they will run up a winning tally eight days out of ten. Any difficulties, there is that rhyming couplet on the bench.
The Galway backs? Tough and diligent but hardly outright brilliant. Pádraic Mannion is the most accomplished stickman. Three of his colleagues have the hurl caught wrong, in the phrase. John Hanbury and Aidan Harte are adequate to decent.
Which or whether, beating Galway in 2018 will be onerous in the extreme. Best hope lies in stretching David Burke and Johnny Coen at midfield. Their protective function, for the defence, is massive.
Kilkenny stretching Galway? Maybe pair Richie Leahy or James Maher with Pádraig Walsh at midfield, the latter’s best position. Burke and Coen are not used to opponents running past them. This scenario would make Leahy or Maher an option at wing forward.
I realise no such arrangement is likely to transpire. The Kilkenny management seem wedded to Walsh at full back. Yet his dynamism, when moved out the field against Wexford, prompted comeback.
To win this Leinster final, Kilkenny require a performance not anticipatable on 2018’s form. To lose this Leinster final, Galway must lapse to a level not anticipatable on 2018’s form. Does this dynamic not necessitate a rethink on the challengers’ part.
Clare met Cork in 2017’s Munster final, where they got bogged down in counteracting Anthony Nash’s puckouts. The Banner lost without much of a ripple, over anxious and underwhelming on the day.
For 2018, their backroom was adjusted. Joint manager Gerry O’Connor noted during the week: “The main difference is that this year we’ve focused exclusively on ourselves rather than the opposition.”
Now Clare meet Cork in 2018’s Munster final, a piquant occasion.
Fine lines are as intoxicating, for speculation, as fine wines. Had Tipperary’s Jake Morris struck wide rather than hit the post in the already famous round-robin tie, Clare would be out and seeking new management.
O’Connor was equally candid on this front: “We had a two-year contract and I couldn’t see that being renewed and I couldn’t see an appetite within us to continue either.”
That rebound off the post could travel for years. Nothing makes hurlers feel luckier than momentum, as Limerick learned a fortnight ago.
Clare and Cork is a mirror image contest. Both teams struggle, in their front eight, for outright possession. Both teams therefore seek a difficult equilibrium between ball-winners and ball-players.
The crux remains finding best puckout regime. This factor will be all the more crucial on a warm day, when the middle third runs that grant a goalkeeper options become increasingly difficult. Next Sunday afternoon is forecast a blistering occasion.
The mirror image aspect is obvious, even aside from two half-back lines similar in dodginess stakes. For Clare’s Colm Galvin and Cathal Malone, read Cork’s Darragh Fitzgibbon and Bill Cooper. Same story: craft spliced to graft at midfield.
For David Reidy, read Daniel Kearney. Same light mobile midfielder retreaded as roving wing forward.
For Tony Kelly, read Conor Lehane. Same putative centre-forward avid for travel, a false 11 luring the centre back into dangerous areas.
For John Conlon, read Séamus Harnedy. Same skilful burliness wanted simultaneously at full forward and half forward.
Subs, in mirror image contests, become still more important, because subs can reset a contest made malleable through effort. The Banner bench, with Ian Galvin and Conor McGrath likely on it, should be somewhat stronger in attacking terms.
If so, advantage in the final quarter, when one or two Cork backs might be ripe for plucking.
But the Clare half backs will need to improve in serious degree.