Hurling aficionados love drama, an enjoyment forever in need of the unexpected.
Since a replay, by definition, is the unexpected, this weekend offers perfect pitch. Galway and Kilkenny move to Thurles for a rerun of last Sunday’s gruelling Leinster final. Aficionados are relishing the latest story, popularly known as ‘The Mystery of the Vanishing Gap’.
This tale began six weeks ago in Salthill, where grass and drama were equally scant. While Galway won by eight points, the day’s divide was closer in tone to double that margin. Once the All-Ireland champions clutched in the final quarter, the visitors stalled. Kilkenny were dogged but no more, scoring but 1-2 from play, the goal a buckshee effort in added time.
Consensus deemed Galway too far ahead for the gap to be bridged in 2018. Too far ahead of every county, in all likelihood. Galway’s power hurling looked the new sheriff in town, with sweeper systems and other outlaw entities fading away through the sheer attrition of staying in the saddle.
What is a story without a twist? And what is a twist without a stranger arriving at the door?
His name is Billy Ryan, a Graigue-Ballycallan clubman. Kilkenny plucked him from the blue for last Sunday’s Leinster Final, where bookmakers made Galway six points plus the better outfit. Ryan started right corner forward and struck two points, a tally that could have run to five.
His presence makes an important point. Any season, the space between matches is crucial for allowing reassessment of players’ form. This season, the new structure compressed fixtures and left any break even more important.
Under Brian Cody, Kilkenny are renowned for prioritising training contests. Cut it in Nowlan Park and you could cut it anywhere, even in Croke Park. Precisely this emphasis placed Walter Walsh, a debutant, in the replayed 2014 All-Ireland final. Walsh’s training performances on Jackie Tyrrell pressed the case.
Kilkenny management took stock over their three-week break. What transpired is patent.
Billy Ryan did a Walter Walsh on it. Ger Aylward, on the bench against Wexford for the round robin’s last outing, regained his place. Cody went back to basics, which means clenched workrate and the freshness bestowed by lads, both likely and unlikely, receiving opportunities.
There are further implications. Not much leaks in Kilkenny but a friend rang me well before the Leinster Final. He said Ryan (definitely) and Aylward (probably) would start. This information came from a panellist.
Again, Richie Hogan was only going so so and Colin Fennelly not well at all. Substitutions in the Leinster final (Hogan third in, Fennelly fourth in), bore out said information. How will these two men meet being down the pecking order?
Think about the current situation. Galway saw a sole change from their lineout in Salthill (Niall Burke for Brian Concannon). They can only see this draw with Kilkenny as a complete flop, which puts every sort of onus on their panel. Which of them, Daithí Burke and Aidan Harte aside, did well?
Maybe we say too much about structures and systems and tactics. Maybe we do not say enough about the mental end of preparation. For both counties’ hurlers, this week will have been a tunnel, a psychological constriction.
Predictions and punditry move beside the point. Such is the power of the unexpected. This week, the only place improvement could be found lay in a player’s head. No one could get any fitter, any sharper.
The run up to a draw is about form and application. The run up to a replay is about character and courage. These points apply with renewed force when the favourites flopped the first day. We are about to see the colour of Galway’s watermark.
Any story is only a chapter in a bigger scéal, same as Sunday’s pairing is part of a broader picture. Hurling is down to last eight, the engraver’s chisel out of its holster. For last six, we can only presume victory for Clare over Westmeath, victory for Limerick over Carlow. What evidence points otherwise?
This presumption maps two routes. For Galway and Kilkenny, the prize is not just progress but progress of a particular kind. Win and semi-final victory over Clare or Wexford would deliver an All-Ireland final appearance.
Call it direct. Strong argument says a team not good enough to beat Clare or Wexford has no business being alive at championship death. Clare still require an adequate half back line. Wexford still require midfielders and half forwards consistently able to process possession other than sweeper-delivered handy stuff.
The scenario is stark. Loss on Sunday means straight into an All-Ireland quarter-final with Limerick. A team going right well before a no-show against Clare in the round-robin, Limerick represent flinty opposition. They need to mend their discipline and protect their full back line but might well possess more outright potential than Clare or Wexford.
We shall see. Which or whether, success against Limerick would deliver a semi-final with Cork. The following weekend, mind. No time to catch breath, to explore fresh options.
Quite a scenario. Nobody does front foot like Cork do front foot. Given their U21s’ brilliant showing on Wednesday evening against Tipperary, the county is heading for the yomp side of pomp. As of now, Cork might look like All-Ireland champions in waiting in two grades.
Beating Clare or Wexford is obviously the easier route. Galway and Kilkenny will say they are looking no further than Sunday in Thurles, no lie involved, but deep down a realisation about disparity in route is there. The pressure for this replay is way up again on the redoubled pressure inherent in every replay.
Galway remain favoured for good reason. They have, as everyone acknowledged, more improvement to find. They should get out the gap, get themselves sitting pretty in last four.
Yet Kilkenny, miles away from Salthill in every sense, now look a few clicks away from hurling really well. Yes, they need more creativity in middle third, such as Richie Hogan’s pass provided for Enda Morrissey’s point, but Kilkenny have moved away from the stolid side of solid.
Galway cannot delay establishing dominance in Thurles. Every level minute grants these opponents renewed belief. No dominance and Galway become vulnerable to one of the sovereign stories, that one in which a plain creature grows beautiful through the kindness of time.
Kilkenny are still a duckling, a Cinderella. This Sunday, Galway must be cruel to keep them plain.
If not, the story changes again. Kilkenny might turn back into Kilkenny.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved