Ten minutes into the second-half in Croke Park yesterday, there was a sense that there was something different about Galway this year.
Kilkenny landed some heavy hits on their chin after half-time, as everybody expected them to, but Galway took it and unleashed a barrage in return.
On 44 minutes, they were still ahead 0-16 to 0-13. I said to myself, ‘They’ve weathered the storm’.
And then, just like that, Kilkenny began to whip up the tornado.
Conor Fogarty, who was absolutely immense, went on a run and forged the opening for John Joe Farrell to score the game’s only goal. Then TJ Reid landed a superb point but Galway rebounded off the ropes and fired off another volley of shots. Successive points from Conor Cooney and Cathal Mannion brought Galway to within one. Again, I was saying to myself, ‘Yeah, there is something different about Galway’. But like an irritated heavyweight fed up of getting poked in the eye, Kilkenny cut loose and smacked Galway around the ring. Five successive points concussed Galway and Kilkenny just kept them at arms length until the final bell.
It’s probably more accurate to compare Kilkenny to a champion greyhound, one of those determined dogs who just senses his competitor coming up on the rail before kicking on and out of sight.
That is what absolutely separates Kilkenny from everyone else; their game management, that ability to know when to press the accelerator and power home.
Kilkenny have won so much now, this group have been through so many wars and battles, that there is never any panic but their mentality is an exemplar of everything good about them. They were flat in the first half but they never drop their heads or deviate from their primary focus. When other teams hit a rocky patch, they retreat into themselves. When Kilkenny find themselves in that position, it’s almost like a trigger point to power right out of there. Their players more or less say to themselves, ‘I’ll have a good seven or eight minutes here now, I’ll do three or four good things to get me out of this dip’. That is the absolute difference between them and everybody else.
For a finish, there was nothing really different about Galway. The same players who voted for change and a new way forward after last year’s final didn’t take those steps forward. When Kilkenny upped their intensity and workrate in the second-half, Galway couldn’t live with it. The same guys who didn’t do it last year, especially. Some of the ringleaders that got Anthony Cunningham out, couldn’t get it done again yesterday. There was one schemozzle in the second-half where Kilkenny fellas were scavenging for the ball like crazed wolves, whereas as few of Galway’s so called ‘leaders’ just skirting around the perimeter. That just won’t ever be good enough.
The whole pattern of the afternoon was almost a carbon copy of last year’s Leinster and All-Ireland finals. When Galway were on top in the first-half, they nearly seemed to believe they were almost over the line. Padraic Mannion won a great ball but then decided to fist-pump to the steps of the siege of Ennis. Can you imagine what the Kilkenny fellas were thinking looking at that?
Kilkenny obliterated Galway in all the key second half battles. Mick Fennelly was like a man transformed after the break, just bursting guys out of his way for fun. Richie Hogan was immense. John Joe Farrell was outstanding again. For all the hurling Daithi Burke did, TJ Reid was still pure class when Kilkenny needed him to be.
The two subs Kilkenny brought on made a huge difference because John Power also had a fine match. Kilkenny may only have 17 or 18 players now as opposed to the 22 or 23 they had to call in their prime but that’s all they really need.
Despite what Jim Gavin says, a team with this experience doesn’t need to use 20 or 21 players when you have players who can make the impact that Hogan and Power had. Can you imagine too how hard Eoin Larkin and Colin Fennelly will work now in the next five weeks to get back into that team? Can you imagine too how much that training will bring on Rob Lennon and Joey Holden?
The machine is still powering on like a Panzer tank but every team left in the championship will be looking at where they might slow it down. Cathal Mannion, Conor Whelan and Conor Cooney hit 10 points from play. A Tipperary full-forward line of John O’Dwyer, Seamus Callanan and John McGrath may fancy their chances on that full-back line but will they get a chance to meet Kilkenny? Especially if Waterford take them down next weekend, which is very possible.
Dublin showed huge heart and courage on Saturday night to play as well as they did with 14 men but Cork still weren’t convincing. Their use of possession was dire at times until Cork started to use the ball more wisely but the draw this morning will dictate if Cork can make it as far as a quarter-final, especially if they run into Clare.
Clare had an impressive win but the most dispiriting aspect of the weekend was the manner of the Laois’ collapse.
After all the great work done by Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett, everything caved in like wet sand in Ennis on Saturday evening.
Martin Fogarty is a great appointment as the new director of hurling but ensuring the likes of Laois don’t fall off the face of the hurling earth has to be his starting point.
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