You can’t start anywhere else but Galway today and their aggression.
It’s something that has really stood out for me so far this year. Not since the late ’80s have I seen a Galway team play with the kind of ferocity they showed against Kilkenny in the Leinster final. And it didn’t matter whether it was nice aggression or ugly aggression, they were hitting.
The management team of Anthony Cunningham, Tom Helebert and Mattie Kenny had taken a lot of flak over the number of big names they had dropped from the panel but they didn’t give a damn. They’re in this job for one reason and one reason only — they want to see Galway winning at this level.
It shows too that you don’t need another team of 15 to manage a hurling team. There are three of them. They do all the coaching and training themselves. They work well together, sharing duties, and they seem to be on the same wavelength.
Everyone is treated the same, no stars, and that too was very evident against Kilkenny. Everyone worked as hard as each other. Everyone worked for each other and that’s a really good sign of a team and of the way they’re managed.
Another great sign of a good manager is that he includes his selectors in everything he does and I’ve noticed that every time he’s interviewed and given any kind of praise for the work being done in Galway, Anthony always mentions the two boys.
Having said all that, this is a huge game for this team and for this management. They’re going in as odds-on favourites. They already destroyed one of the greatest teams ever to play the game. The big question is, can they now handle those pressures? Can they handle the pressure of going into an All-Ireland semi-final as favourites the same way they handled going into a Leinster final as underdogs? That’s the challenge they face.
Can they get rid of this traditional thing they have about Cork? They’ve beaten Cork in a few semi-finals when they weren’t expected to do but they’ve failed so often, at every stage, when they were strongly fancied to win. Can they handle that expectation tomorrow?
You should never run from expectation and if there is any lesson all of us can learn from Katie Taylor’s great win during the week, it’s this — expectation should actually lift you, it should force you to raise your game.
Having said all that, if Cyril Donnellan is unfit that’s a massive blow for Galway and maybe those supporters should temper their expectations a little. There’s no doubt though, Galway do have the talent to win this game.
What of Cork? If you were to look at what Cork have done at underage in the last few years and what Galway have done, it’s a no-contest — Galway have by far the better record.
But of course senior hurling is a different animal altogether, a different game to minor and U21. Part of that difference is the level of aggression. It takes a lot more than just skill and pure hurling ability to be successful at senior.
That’s why I’m really surprised that Cork haven’t gone with Niall McCarthy. Niall will put his body on the line not just for one ball, but for every ball and has never let Cork down in Croke Park.
I’d have had him in there for this game, especially in the half-forward line, where Cork are weak. This guy will win the dirty ball where others won’t even contest it.
There’s no questioning the skill of the Cork players, and I think Croke Park will suit them, the size and the surface. But to get the best from those forwards, they’ve also got to be able to win that ball. That’s going to be Cork’s challenge.
They can expect a huge physical battle. They can expect to be hit the way Kilkenny were hit in the Leinster final (and I hope they’ve gone through that DVD a few times!) – perhaps they’ll be hit even harder.
Midfield will be a minefield. Expect a few bombs to go off here! Iarla Tannian and Andy Smith are two strong men, two great workers — Smith especially; Pa Cronin and Lorcán McLoughlin will need to be on their toes here.
The real test of the Cork team though will be in their backs. They’re going to be up against it. It’s a good Cork defence and I’m especially impressed by the two men in the corners, Shane O’Neill and Brian Murphy.
It’s further out though where they’ll really come under pressure. Will Damien Hayes start on Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and do to him what he did a few years ago? David Burke on the other wing is also flying, as is Niall Burke at centre-forward. Biggest poser of all though – can Cork contain Joe? Phenomenal skill, phenomenal strength, phenomenal workrate, he’ll take minding.
To call it, I think Galway will have too much aggression for Cork, should win.
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