Another Friday evening spent waiting and wondering about the composition of a Kilkenny team to play Galway.
Who’s out, who’s in, the ways in which it may differ from the starting XV of the drawn game.
It is a measure of what Anthony Cunningham has done to us, done to Kilkenny and done to Brian Cody.
You’ll remember how it played out two years ago. Cody’s victory in the end, but Cunningham’s agenda up to then. Three discrete battles and Galway lost only one of them — albeit the most important one, and with it the war.
Yet reflect on the extreme measures which General Cody had to take after twice failing to beat a supremely well-organised maroon army. That he shuffled the pack for the All-Ireland replay and pulled a couple of cards from the bottom of the deck — Cillian Buckley sprung at midfield, Richie Hogan pushed up front, Walter Walsh in for his championship debut at top of the right — was because he was made to. Cunningham forced him into it and in the process unwittingly incited a backlash. Cornered cats, in case he didn’t know it already, have razors for claws.
Here’s a checklist of items to look out for in Tullamore tonight.
Jackie Tyrrell in the corner? Brian Hogan at six? Lester Ryan or Michael Fennelly at midfield, or perhaps the latter at centre-forward?
If these players start in those positions, or wind up there after 20 minutes, the lesson is clear: the favourites have come to bump and grind. Unlike six days ago, when they came to Tullamore to hurl and chase.
It was a rare miscalculation by Cody, and understandable. He spent springtime building a team to take on Clare in Championship. A younger, lighter, sleeker model with such necessities as defenders with the pace to go with the Podge Collinses and Conor McGraths.
After winning the league, he can hardly be condemned for sticking with his gleaming prototype for the Championship.
All might have been well and good had it indeed been Clare they faced last Sunday. Instead it was a Galway that featured such man-monsters up front as Joe Canning, Conor Cooney and, for the second half, Jonathan Glynn. Viewing it in that light, one could even go so far as to decree that Kilkenny’s late collapse was not so much a freakish occurrence as a probability, with a middleweight defence and midfield trying to cope with a heavyweight attack, and eventually buckling.
This is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, of course. (The issue of whether hindsight in a supporter or pundit should be foresight in a manager is one for another day). But one cause for Kilkenny optimism tonight is the fact that Cody very rarely makes the same mistake twice. His record shows that he learns from his omissions, oversights and errors. To what extent his various selectors have had a hand in this, we’ll never know. Pity.
Ranged against him this evening is a man Cody has got the better of in just one of four championship jousts. The more frequent the meetings, the more frequently it appears it’s not simply Galway, but rather Anthony Cunningham’s Galway, that the wearers of the stripes are taking on.
Engaging, thoughtful and media-friendly away from the dugout, Cunningham is a ball of coiled wire on the sideline even though it’s Cody he’s squaring up to. He’s a ball of coiled wire on the sideline especially because it’s Brian Cody he’s squaring up to. Good for him; an animated manager on one side of the whitewash may be no guarantee of an animated team on the other side, but a quiescent manager will not jolt the troops into life.
Not that Cunningham has too many sleeping dogs who require rousing. Andy Smith is spiky and narky and helped lay down the bassline six days ago and will be similarly combative here. He, Iarla Tannian and Tommy Walsh are likely to find themselves in the same theatre of battle. Expect the smell of napalm in the evening and a kaleidoscope of cards.
More of the same from this pair and Joe Canning will be needed tonight. Likewise from Fergal Moore and David Collins, who are hardy and experienced and can both hurl and defend, albeit Moore is the better defender; Moore, indeed, is almost as good as Ollie Canning. Yes, that good. Jonathan Glynn reserves his best for Kilkenny when introduced. Johnny Coen and David Burke must do better from the off.
It was striking that Ronan Burke was still playing his position when Paul Murphy — Kilkenny’s most consistently effective performer since 2011 and therefore well entitled to an off-day — cleared that headless ball to him in the lead-up to the fifth goal. Unlike the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park, when the Galway full-back went awol in the closing 10 minutes and Eddie Brennan helped himself to the buffet, the young full-back didn’t allow himself get sucked out of position amid the madness. This was encouraging, even if Richie Power wafted around him far too easily for Colin Fennelly’s first point.
Galway supporters with elephantine memories will have derived quite the kick out of the events of the closing minutes. Back in 1932, the county led Clare by 15 points early in the second half of the All-Ireland semi-final in Limerick, only to concede seven goals thereafter and lose by five points. (Two of the more imaginative rationales furnished: the Clare water bottle contained poitín, which gave them new life, and Biddy Earley had bewitched the Galway lads). If hurling narratives repeat themselves all the time, this was a particularly long delayed echo.
Quite a kick and to date quite a championship, one that has been more exciting than last year’s was at the same stage. Limerick/Tipperary and Galway/Kilkenny decided in injury time; Galway/Laois and the first Cork/Waterford game twitching on the thread of a late placed ball; the Nash saga; Sky Sports at Nowlan Park; the whipcrack sound with which Alan Cadogan, Aidan Walsh and Austin Gleeson have taken the stage; Laois and Wexford doing their bit; Limerick demonstrating that boardroom mishaps can be atoned for with imaginative work on the training field.
Everything is set up for Galway tonight. Momentum, confidence, areas where they can improve, no worries about their older players lasting the pace.
Has to be Kilkenny then, obviously.