ENDA MCEVOY: Sharper Brian Cody has made this a race rather than a lap of honour

"Germany going out is going to be a great study for coaches. Not simply bad coaching or mismanagement. What worked today may not tomorrow. So many variables required to win persistently. How did team tactically evolve since 2014? Was there enough adversity in qualifying campaign?"
- A tweet last week from Gary Curneen, US-based soccer coach and author.

The most important match for Galway hurling this week? Take a wild guess. On second thoughts, don’t. You’re bound to get it wrong.

Not Croke Park last Sunday, even if it served as a necessary wake-up call to dozing champions, the contemporary equivalent of the slave leaning over to the emperor and whispering in his ear, “Dude, you’re mortal.” The Leinster final was a test they didn’t pass but they didn’t flunk either.

Not Semple Stadium tomorrow, even if at the end of the season we may end up looking back and agreeing that it marked a lightbulb moment, after which the MacCarthy Cup holders stopped reading the newspapers, found a higher gear and went on to retain their trophy. (“Enough adversity in qualifying campaign”…)

No. Portlaoise last Wednesday. The Leinster U21 final. Galway won a thriller, yet in big-picture terms the result mattered little for them one way or the other.

In big-picture terms what really mattered for them was that here was a bunch of post-minor youngsters in top-class provincial competitive action at last. Here was a Galway U21 team playing their third match of the season as opposed to capsizing at the first fence in an All-Ireland semi-final.

Here was a cohort no longer in danger of falling through the cracks in the interstices between minor and senior.

Now extend the line on the graph and imagine the implications — uniformly good implications — of three years, five years, 10 years of this tempering process for Galway’s youngsters. The county’s presence in Leinster at under-age level has had immediate consequences for the locals. It may prove to have far-reaching consequences for the Munster counties.

So, last Sunday and a match that acquainted the All-Ireland champions with their own mortality. No bad thing, of course; the king in the black and amber robes reigned as long as he did because, far from ignoring the ambitions and machinations of his rivals, he lived in constant fear of palace coups and consequently never dropped his guard. Permanent vigilance was the price of serial success and one willingly paid.

It was also the moment when Kilkenny rendered Championship 2018 a race rather than a lap of honour.

Though the favourites may end up justifying their status, the aura of invincibility has dissolved. This was a rock fired into the middle of a pond and producing ripples aplenty. The chasing pack won’t be shy about analysing the areas Kilkenny exposed and lining up what punches to throw should the day come.

Cody hasn’t lost it. Last Sunday demonstrated that too. After all these years he can still pick a specific team to do a specific job. Granted, in the last 40 metres of the field the challengers were frequently woeful, but that didn’t detract from the clarity and cogency of the overall display. Kilkenny managed two feats in one. In their own half, where Pádraig Walsh’s splendour under the dropping ball made you wonder if he was perhaps related to Tommy Walsh, they smothered the Galway attack by getting bodies around the sliotar when it dropped. In the opposition half they deployed a fleet of runners and took on the enemy in the space on the wings.

The vast maroon whirlpool that had engorged them in Salthill five weeks earlier was a distant memory. This was Kilkenny’s most persuasive outing of the Championship, rigorously planned and, but for the shooting, coolly enacted.

They performed better than they played, if that doesn’t sound like too much of an oxymoron. To a degree this was the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final from the other side of the mirror, except Kilkenny had no second chance then and Galway didn’t lose six days ago.

The record endures. Over the course of 20 seasons no team has beaten Cody in successive Championship fixtures. It’ll hold for a while longer. As unknowable and impenetrable as he is, one wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the events of the past few months have made a new man of him and he’s already mad for road next year.

To return to and reiterate a point made here recently, the Cody of 2018 has been a far better, sharper and less reactive Cody than the 2017 iteration.

But two defeats out of three, as will be the case tomorrow in the event of another bottom line of 0-18 or thereabouts, ain’t good. It was Kilkenny, remember, who scored the last three points to draw the game and it was they who sourced half of their points from frees. Points from their starting forwards? None, two, none, two, one, one. Points from Galway’s starting forwards? Two, one, four, two, one, three. The underdogs brought on four subs up front, which also told a tale.

Nor did they get close enough to James Skehill to pull the trigger, not that their opponents were much better in that regard. On which topic, Conor Whelan could as easily have taken his point at the start of the second half instead of working Eoin Murphy, while Joe Canning could as easily have taken his point midway through the half instead of attempting to pick out Niall Burke with a pass clocked and cleared by Paul Murphy.

But so what? We can’t on the one hand criticise Galway for their lack of green flags (two in their last four outings) while simultaneously condemning them for trying to make the rigging shake when a simple point can be taken instead. It’s a small existential dilemma for them nonetheless.

What will Micheál Donoghue do? What would Cody do?

We know the answer to the latter. We’ve seen it too often not to. The Kilkenny of old, were they in Galway’s stead, would channel their inner Terminator and have the game put to bed by the end of the opening quarter. Six days ago Galway went out to play a match. Tomorrow they’ll go out to win a match.

Niall Burke apart, not one of their forwards can’t do better. Given Jonathan Flynn’s success as a battering ram against Wexford his introduction made perfect sense — he won the first two puckouts — but amounted to more of the same. If ever there was a day they needed a Damien Hayes to provide a dash of spice and speed, this was it.

Galway won the All-Ireland without a nuanced forward line. Can they retain it without one? Probably, but it’s a bigger ask.

Some other observations.

Semple Stadium is the ideal venue for any clash of Galway and Kilkenny. Did those people tweeting that the replay should be held in Tullamore or Portlaoise, without offering a scintilla of supporting evidence to back up their argument other than the words “Leinster venues”, really have nothing better to be doing?

That was a rhetorical question.

The disparity in tone and texture between the two provincial finals last Sunday has led to a curious semi-backlash against the Munster final and its alleged candyfloss delights. This is risible. Semple Stadium six days ago was an afternoon spent in a funfair. Croke Park was a turgid fumblefest for 55 minutes, the hurling equivalent of one of those appalling talking-shop summer schools beloved of the Irish commentariat except without the concomitant drama, until it belatedly became a gripping contest.

The longer the favourites go without landing a knockout punch, the likelier they are to be caught in the closing five minutes. Richie Hogan asked them questions in his cameo they weren’t able to answer. (Not a criticism. At his best Hogan asks questions never seen on previous Leaving Cert papers.) While rhapsodies have been written to Galway’s conditioning regime, tomorrow will about speed and stamina and getting the trip far more so than about mere raw power.

“What worked today may not tomorrow”..? Indeed. But the champions’ job here is to repeat what they were doing in Croke Park — except do it a little better. A couple of percentage points extra in effort from every man on the field. The marginal gains that add up.

The identity of the team with the greater scope for improvement should be obvious. The identity of the team with the serial All-Ireland winners is obvious.

It’s Galway and Kilkenny. Anything can happen. It probably will.

A Cats win poses fixture conundrum

A win for the Cats in Thurles tomorrow could cause a major fixtures headache for the GAA’s main fixtures body.

Should Galway lose, they will face Carlow or Limerick in an All-Ireland quarter-final, which has been pencilled in for tomorrow week — the same day Galway’s footballers face Kerry in their opening Super 8 Group 1 game in Croke Park.

Although last year was an exception to christen the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh, hurling quarter-finals are usually staged as a double-header.

Should Galway’s hurlers lose to Kilkenny, the CCCC may bring a quarter-final involving them to Croke Park to be played on the same bill as the Super 8 game. However, any move can’t push out any of the four first-round Super 8 fixtures as rule dictate they must all be played in Croke Park.

Another draw, after extra-time, meanwhile, would mean pushing back the All-Ireland quarter-finals.


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