Selfless Kilkenny win because they expect to win

I’d love to have been in both dressingrooms at half-time yesterday because I can almost picture both scenarios. 

Selfless Kilkenny win because they expect to win

I know what Galway must have felt like, because I’ve been in that position against Kilkenny a few times, high on adrenaline and optimism. I’m sure Galway were almost thinking, “This is it”. And yet the other crowd down the corridor were thinking, “This isn’t good enough”.

I heard Jackie Tyrrell took over the dressing room and gave an inspirational speech. To me, that summed up the selflessness of Jackie, and the selflessness of Kilkenny. Jackie was bound to have been disappointed he wasn’t starting. He might have been down in himself having got injured before the semi-final but he wasn’t thinking about any of that stuff. He suppressed his ego because egos are not entertained in the squad. They just look at the bigger picture. Jackie was only looking at the bigger picture.

Kilkenny’s success has been so dominant and all encompassing they certainly are the All Blacks of the hurling world. They win because they expect to win. They do everything right because that’s the way they do things. Nobody is bigger than anybody else. Nobody is more secure than anyone else.

When Brian Cody was making a late substitution, I was wondering who he was going to haul off. I thought it might have been Colin Fennelly but I certainly didn’t expect it to be Richie Hogan. Richie was hurler of the year last year but Cody still called him ashore in the replayed All-Ireland final. Richie was a frontrunner for the award again before yesterday but none of that stuff matters in Cody’s world. Richie certainly wasn’t happy coming off but if Cody doesn’t think you’re producing it, you’re gone.

At this stage, it’s all second nature to Cody. He is making uncanny calls without even knowing he’s making them half the time. He has enriched the squad with that belief, with that calmness. Even when they were struggling in the first half, I’m sure there was no panic in the dressingroom. Cody believes in his players and he believes they will always win. And they just keep getting the job done.

At stages of the first half, Kieran Joyce looked in trouble but he kept his head and had a storming second half. Joey Holden looked like he could be cleaned by Joe Canning early on but he never panicked either and he has really put himself in the frame now for an All Star. He has great pace, which gives him a huge advantage, but he has led this team well. A year after being dropped for an All-Ireland final replay, the way he recovered just shows you the strength of character that is in this Kilkenny squad.

Michael Fennelly completely personifies that trait. He was out of it for a lot of the first half but he took over around the middle in the second period. He’s just an immense man, especially after all the injuries he has had. He’s such a physical powerhouse that it might not do Joe Schmidt any harm if he gave him a call up for the Rugby World Cup. He certainly wouldn’t be out of place because he’s a beast.

Galway took the fight to Kilkenny all afternoon but I felt they contributed to their own downfall with how they played in the second half. They were too narrow. They never opened up. They were almost too willing to engage Kilkenny in the tackle, too keen to physically front up to them.

Proving your manliness is fine against this crowd but it doesn’t get you where you need to go. If you don’t keep it wide and try and stretch them, Kilkenny just suck you in and slowly suck the life out of you.

Galway took too many wrong options but they also went away from a lot their tactics in the second-half. Before the break, they were trying to create space, especially on their own puck-out, running right and left before trying to take the ball in that zone. Yet once Kilkenny got a handle on that, they shut it down and Galway couldn’t get their hands on the same volume of possession.

It’s not Kilkenny’s fault that they are so good, and that nobody else can catch them, but it was so predictable for a finish yesterday that it was almost in sync with such a dull championship.

Apart from the Galway-Tipp match, there was very little quality or exciting hurling. Maybe that is partly down to the sweeper system, and so much defensive hurling. There certainly was plenty of that on show yesterday and Kilkenny did most of it. Yet once you win, everything is fine.

Even the refereeing performance of James Owens was disappointing. Kilkenny were the better team but he made some terrible calls. Canning deserved Hawk Eye to have a look at a shot waved wide. Johnny Coen should have been sent off. Then Owens made a couple of poor judgements towards Galway at critical stages, especially the stonewall free he didn’t give to Cyril Donnellan after half-time. Good refereeing is about making the correct decisions at the right time, not about balancing the books.

For Galway, it’s another defeat, another huge disappointment. They weren’t good enough. Canning didn’t do enough and he faded out of the match. Jason Flynn and Cathal Mannion didn’t have the scoring impact Galway needed them to have. Still, those two young players should learn from the whole experience and Galway showed that they still have a lot to build on elsewhere. David Burke was excellent. John Hanbury and Paraic Mannion really stepped up and were both impressive. Conor Whelan showed all his inexperience at 18 years of age but he also showed how good he can be.

The challenge for Galway though, is where they go next. They were here too in 2012 and they faded out of the picture over the following two years. They need to back their manager, Anthony Cunningham, and his management team and try and drive on next year and find that few extra per cent that will take them closer to fulfilling their dream.

With Kilkenny though, everyone knows where they are going next. The machine just continues to drive on.

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