Epic may be first act in Galway saga

TWENTY hours later, away from the roars of nearly 40,000 enraptured fans, viewed in the cold light of retrospection, was Sunday’s rip-roaring All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Galway and Kilkenny really one of the all-time great hurling games?

Or are the eulogies just heat-of-the-moment reaction to a game that never flagged from first whistle to last?

With a score line of 5-18 to 4-18, there was obviously a lot of poor defending, on both sides, which lead to soft goals being conceded.

Then, with Galway twice streaking into a big lead, 2-10 to 1-5 with two minutes of normal time remaining in the first-half, 5-17 to 3-12 after 22 minutes of the second period, it could be claimed that really there was only one team in it for most of the game.

But you know, that’s only nit-picking, negative examination.

What was served up in Croke Park, by both Galway and Kilkenny, was a hurling spectacular of the very highest calibre. It was a classic tussle between the old order, Kilkenny, and Galway, the new pretenders, a game ripe with thrills, spills, swaying fortunes, scores galore. For nearly two decades now, Galway have been the bad boys of hurling - broody Brando on the waterfront, dark Dean dying young, the talented teenagers who went astray, spent year after year wasting all that massive potential.

Kilkenny were the shining example to all, the swots, the hard-working, hard-nosed guys who maximised what they had. If it wasn’t 600 points, it was 500+; if they failed one year, they came back the year after to repeat - and didn’t fail a second time.

Yesterday, the two styles clashed. In the opening ten minutes it looked like the old order would prevail, yet again, as Kilkenny raced into a 1-3 to 0-2 lead, threatened to repeat the massacre of last year. But this is a new Galway.

The old leather-clad attitude is still there, the swash-buckle, but with it a spine, a spirit and best of all, a determination, a self-belief, lack of which is what usually leads to self-destruction.

That new attitude, that belief, was encapsulated in the midfield display of David Tierney.

Tierney is an immense talent, in both hurling and football, with power, pace and stamina. Too often over the last few years, that talent was wasted, a lot of blind alleys explored in runs that went nowhere, a lot of shots wasted because there was no commitment when the trigger was pulled.

Not last Sunday. He was everywhere, setting up goal chances (Galway’s first, a perfectly-timed pass to Ger Farragher after a defence-splitting pick-up of a breaking ball), pointing from distance (two from three shots), working like a dervish in defence.

Change of attitude? Belief? Even after Galway had conceded two soft goals just before the break, the heads never dropped. “We weren’t too concerned, it was only the first-half, we still had time to get those back, and we got goals reasonably easy ourselves,” he said.

And what about his own belief in front of goal? “You have to shoot; look at Colin Lynch last week (Clare midfielder, six wides, but a magnificent display, as Clare just fell short against Cork), at least he took the shots. If you don’t shoot, you don’t score.”

What had become too predictable about Galway over this last fifteen years, was that when the chips were down, they would implode; and there were times in Croke Park on Sunday, in the last ten minutes, when, like the kids at the Christmas pantomime, you felt like shouting at them, “He’s behind you!”, as the Kilkenny monster came battling back.

But this is a reformed Galway, a team now with a belief instilled into them by a manager, Conor Hayes, who knows what it takes. In 1987 and 1988, Hayes captained Galway to two hard-fought All-Ireland wins, games that other Galway teams, before and since, would have lost.

Like everyone else in hurling, he has watched Galway teams under-perform, underachieve, since those glorious days of the 80’s. Like everyone else, he has chaffed at the waste of potential. On Sunday, however, and for the third championship outing in succession against major opposition (Tipperary and Limerick earlier victims), Galway produced.

“It was a phenomenal effort from everybody, but David Tierney was exceptional,” said Hayes, acknowledging the input of his midfielder.

“He was in a bit of trouble at half-time, he was absolutely panned out, but he was magnificent again in the second half. He was taken off last year against Kilkenny, was very disappointed with that, made his way back. This was a great day for him, a great day for the team, a great day for everyone involved with Galway hurling.”

So, epic then; time will tell whether it was in fact a changing of the guard. This current Kilkenny side is almost certainly at the end of an era, a lot of new blood required if they are to challenge for the All-Ireland again next year (and don’t write that off).

Galway? They have now won five championship games this year, more than any other Galway side in history, but they have won nothing tangible yet.

In three weeks, in the All-Ireland final, they meet Cork, reigning champions and the only other unbeaten side in this year’s championship.

They know, David Tierney knows; despite all they’ve done to date, there is still a huge task ahead of them. “This is no good to us, unless we can go the step further. Pace is a huge advantage in Croke Park, we have it, but Cork have it too, the likes of two O’Connors, Tom Kenny, they’re quick enough. Anything can happen in championship, and when we’re tuned in, we’re as good as anyone. We’ll look forward now to the next month and get our preparations right.”

I think we can all look forward to next month. And I’ll predict something else - we can all look forward to another classic.

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