PM O'SULLIVAN: People forget Galway are at least four years into their curve

Galway's Aidan Harte in action against Clare. Will the champions' experience see them over the line on Sunday?

"If you don’t win, you’re not remembered" — Andrew O’Shaughnessy

Hurling’s biggest day is up and 2018’s championship arc is moving towards its fixed star, writes PM O’Sullivan.

Can we not be fancy about the general stuff? The season all but behind us allows latitude.

Sunday afternoon will bookend a summer of action that swung between remarkable and sublime. Hurling overshadowed soccer and football, Love Island and Brexit. Most impressively of all, hurling even overshadowed the fiasco that enveloped the Liam Miller tribute match.

The Game, a fascinating documentary on the sport’s reinvention in the late 19th century, landed into this mix. People have been trying to reinvent it again as of early 21st century, with mixed results.

We must hope this summer’s bumper crop of hype translates into sustained work on the ground. The Game offered much about hurling in Ballyhale but rather less about hurling in Ballycastle.

Yes, the old game took on a new cast over the last three months, reaching parts other seasons rarely touched. This fresh structure is certainly a factor. Management set-ups can learn far more quickly than in previous eras, since another championship test is no further away than a week or a fortnight. Compression can be best education.

Tweaks are required, as commonly agreed, but the rejig appears durable. Yet there is, behind the ballyhoo, cold anger on the club scene. This animus must be addressed in coherent terms.

Inter-county hurlers do not parachute out of the sky on their 19th birthday. Choking the seed means, sooner or later, choking the feed.

Winter discussion, in the phrase.

The particular stuff is Galway and Limerick on Sunday for the first time since 1980 and third time ever as an ultimate pairing. The stakes are massive. Here comes a piquant denouement, whatever transpires.

Limerick might bridge a gap haunting the county for 45 years. If so, there will be men in their 60s, grey of hair and scant of hair, dancing in the aisles next Sunday evening, men who bopped after 1973’s triumph to ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree’ and ‘Crocodile Rock’.

Last time Limerick won a senior title, The Rolling Stones still counted as edgy.

If not, this Galway team gets robed in the ermine solely acquirable through successive titles. They must be looking on with especial interest in the homes of Lorrha and Dorrha. Proximity is salt, however inland you might be.

The stakes are only massive. Kilmallock’s Andrew O’Shaughnessy, right corner-forward when Kilkenny defeated Limerick in 2007’s senior final, nailed it during the week. Likeably candid, he instanced how the 1974 Limerick team, likewise beaten by Kilkenny, is scarcely mentioned.

O’Shaughnessy’s words scorched varnish: “If you don’t win, you’re not remembered.”

Who will go down for standing up in 2018? This summer’s narrative is clear: Diminution in confidence about Galway’s chances. There was near certainty about their prospects until the Leinster final, until Kilkenny drew a stodgy encounter.

Galway produced their finest hurling in the first-half of that replay. By the 33rd minute, the opposition were chasing shadows and a 12-point lead of 1-15 to 0-6. The champions seemed to have vaporised complacency by vaporising Kilkenny.

Seemed to have… Kilkenny rallied, paring the lead to minimum margin in the 55th minute, following a superb Richie Hogan goal. Galway survived to win by seven points but notions of invincibility scattered.

Their two subsequent outings reinforced the diminishment narrative. Both days, they prised a nine-point lead in the first-half. Both days, Clare roared back.

The second day, Clare should have won. They were undone by a fluffed Peter Duggan free and Aron Shanagher’s discomfort with right side striking.

Technical cuts can be the deepest. Handpassed that ball by Shane O’Donnell, Shanagher should have stepped out and struck low off his right, ensuring a goal. His one-sidedness dictated a scoop shot off his left and boon for Galway, via James Skehill’s shoulder and the goalpost.

The case for the champions remains overall power, even if their approach has been one dimensional at times. How often have we seen a player around midfield receiving short and lofting forward, without even a look, on the quarter turn? Confident of their inside forwards’ aerial ability, they can become overconfident of the bludgeon factor.

Which or whether, Galway will start five forwards who can score from distance, with Jonathan Glynn the exception. Limerick will start six forwards who can score from distance, with Gearóid Hegarty no longer an exception. Both teams were shaping up as takers of 1-24 or so, shaping up in this ballpark until Galway’s 1-17 the last day.

Mark this factor. The reduced tally furthered questions about whether the champions are burning fuel and no longer able to operate in economical fashion. Sunday will be their ninth outing, two more than expected. Has this elongated route run down their energy levels to a notch where Limerick’s freshness might overtake them?

People forget Galway are not two years but at least four years into their curve. Ten of 2018’s likely starters paraded in the 2015 senior final (as did Jason Flynn). Three years ago, Conor Cooney was a used sub, with Joseph Cooney and Gearóid McInerney unused subs.

The contrast with Limerick, debutants all, is stark. Freshness easily swerves into naiveté. Equally, have Limerick ever encountered opponents who will pose so relentless a challenge in physical terms? The contenders will not know what hit them until it hits them.

The case for Limerick rests on the manner in which they found a way to win games tilting the other way. They have beaten Tipperary, Kilkenny and Cork. To win this All-Ireland by overcoming the reigning champions would be one of the supreme campaigns.

Limerick’s 2007 outfit contained Brian Begley, Brian Geary, Mike O’Brien, Dónal O’Grady and Donie Ryan. These men were admirably honest players but limited hurlers. Their current outfit is significantly better and does not contain even one similarly cramped hurler, let alone five of them.

Brian Geary in action in the 2007 All-Ireland final
Brian Geary in action in the 2007 All-Ireland final

These two teams hurl in markedly similar style. They get three and four of their forwards out around midfield, striving for one-on-ones and two-on-twos inside. If Glynn’s height and strength represent a goal threat, so does Aaron Gillane’s balance. A draw might be the equilibrium this contest finds.

The leading question, when two teams like to go short to deep-lying forwards, is half-back dominance. Galway’s recent troubles derived from slackening in this line. If you believe Hegarty, Kyle Hayes and Tom Morrissey can upset Pádraic Mannion, Gearóid McInerney and Aidan Harte, you believe Limerick can triumph. An interesting one would be Hegarty at centre-forward and Hayes on Harte.

Galway still possess enough but need to produce it. While there is a big performance in them, is it a 70-plus-minute performance? Their last three outings centred on hurling in spells. Lulls follow spells, as per those comebacks from Kilkenny and Clare.

Off and on, I nurse a fancy for Limerick. Bar that misstep against Clare in the round-robin, they found a way. But the balance of probabilities still lies with the holders. Less needs to go absolutely right for them.

Come Sunday night, Monday morning, the Galway supporters should be flaked from bopping to ‘Nice Knows What’.

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