After all the commotion of the past seven days, today's two provincial hurling finals could hardly have come at a better time for the GAA and everyone who follows it.
All we seem to have been talking about is health and safety and Super 8s and the growing gulf in football between the strong and the weak but today brings us all back to the essence of the games and how magical inside those four white lines they can be.
I’d be big into my football as well so I was saddened to see how lacklustre the provincial finals were. I grew up in an era where there was no more than a kick of a ball between Dublin and Meath in Leinster and Cork and Kerry in Munster and whatever pair met up above in Ulster, but last weekend you could have switched off the telly at half-time, knowing who had won.
I happened to keep it on but what struck me about the winning teams was just how nonchalant the likes of Kerry and Dublin were about it. You’d think it was only the McGrath or O’Byrne Cup they’d won. Whenever I won a provincial final, I could never contain my sheer delight with the lads I’d gone to battle with.
Even in 2007, when we were expected to win and it wasn’t quite as seminal or epic as 2002, 2004 and 2010, there was a genuine feeling of euphoria.
There was nothing forced about it whereas when the Dubs invite some kids and family members onto the field and to stand in for some photos, you can nearly hear someone going, “Cheese!”
There’ll be none of that today. Imagine what it’ll mean to Clare to win Munster for the first time since — I couldn’t believe this when someone said it to me the other day — ’98 when Colin Lynch and myself were going hip-to-hip.
Even Kilkenny, a county like Dublin that would just take the cup and throw it into the boot of the car, would savour this Leinster title, with Cody maybe breaking out into one of those giddy skips normally only reserved for September. He’s been often asked after an All-Ireland if the latest was the sweetest. Well, win today and there won’t be a doubt about which qualifies as his sweetest Leinster.
That’s because of how formidable Galway now are. Micheal Donoghue strikes me as a manager very much like in the Jim Gavin mould: a smart, calculated, silent assassin.
Just as Gavin quietly went about learning his craft with the county U21s, Donoghue was down in Tipperary during Eamon O’Shea’s time as part of his own career personal
development without anyone knowing.
Poaching Lukasz Kirszenstein was another shrewd move: as well as literally strengthening Galway, it weakened Tipp.
Last year Donoghue identified early on that with so many teams playing with sweeper systems Galway had to win the All-Ireland with an outside game. But this year he’s been smart enough to know that while you can get away with winning one All-Ireland without scoring goals, the chances of winning back-to-back without goals is slim. Galway would have to change it up and you can see that this year.
In the past you’d have often wondered: does every Galway player, from 1 to 15, or 1 to 26 honestly believe they can take Kilkenny down? Now I’d be asking: does every Kilkenny player really believe they can take Galway down?
That’s why this would be some achievement by Cody: to come up with a game plan that makes his players believe they can exploit Galway.
From my experience, Kilkenny would always target one or two weaknesses on an opposing team, like putting Henry corner-forward on some raw, unproven young fella. There’s no raw, unproven young fella playing for Galway now; there’s no obvious weakness. So if I were Kilkenny I’d attack Galway’s strengths. I’d put a few small speedsters in at 11 and 14, give short ball into their hand and then let them run straight at the likes of Gearoid McInerney and Daithi Burke. There’s no point in competing in the air straight down the centre with them but if you put the likes of TJ Reid and Walter Walsh on the flanks, you could attack aerially there and really stretch that Galway defence.
At the time of writing this I don’t know who’s starting for Kilkenny but either way a guy I’ll be keeping a close eye on in the days and years ahead is Liam Blanchfield.
He’s the perfect specimen, the kind you could put into a Galway shirt and he’d slot in the way a Joseph Cooney does. He has a physical presence but he isn’t using it. Not enough, anyway.
He did for the last 15 minutes against Dublin. He did the first time a lot of us would have first seen him when he was parachuted in for the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final replay against Waterford in Thurles. Where has that guy gone? If he re-emerges, then Kilkenny are back as well because he has the physique they need to beat the likes of Galway.
In Munster, I’ve been impressed with both managements. I thought from the league there might be a bit of a hangover from the departure of Kieran Kingston but John Meyler looks healthier and fresher than any other manager around even though only Cody is older than him.
It’s a strange one: we still don’t seem to trust Cork even though they’re reigning Munster champions, they’re the one team who have yet to lose a game in this year’s Munster championship as well, and only for Damien Cahalane’s sending off, they could have been in the All-Ireland final.
I love watching them play, especially their forwards, but I wonder what their full-back line would be if they had an average goalkeeper instead of an outstanding one in Anthony Nash.
When you pack out the middle third of the field, Cork struggle on the counterattack. Waterford have shown that more than once, even in the dead-rubber a fortnight ago in Thurles. In the first game against Clare down in Cork, Clare could have had three or four goals and I think those goals are still on today.
At the other end of the field, it’s about frees, as in not conceding them. In last year’s Munster final, Patrick Horgan scored 10 frees, 40% of Cork’s tally of points. That’s too high.
You can tackle with intensity without fouling. The last day against Limerick they only coughed up five scoreable frees to Shane Dowling, one of which he missed. Of course, there are times when it’s sensible to foul, when you sense there’s a possible goal on if you don’t. But Clare or anyone else can’t be allowing the opposition score so much from frees.
To me now this is very much Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor’s team, even though what they’ve really done is remind and empower players that ultimately it’s their team.
Last year they were playing as if they were still Davy’s team. Sometimes after you’ve had your hand in plaster of Paris, it can feel for awhile as if it’s still there. Now the strapping is well off and the Clare lads are starting to move freely again and express themselves.
They’re making decisions for themselves. They’re taking the analysis themselves without becoming bogged down over the opposition, a mistake they made in the same fixture 12 months ago.
Clare beat themselves to an extent last year. They won’t this year. Instead, I think, they’ll beat Cork. Triggering the kind of outpouring we missed last weekend.
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