If Galway’s management is concerned about their inside defence, Brian Cody may have similar concerns about his own, writes Donal O’Grady.
Kilkenny play to a particular system. All players are aware of their roles and they possess top class forwards. These attackers can occupy any position from midfield forward. They are toilers as well as scorers, defenders as well as attackers, with high levels of skill.
This makes them very difficult to defeat. They have a fully fit squad to pick from although Richie Power hasn’t played in a while. Michael Fennelly was absent for the Leinster final but he proved there was no diminution in his powers with a fine display in the semi-final at midfield, alongside unsung hero Conor Fogarty.
If Kilkenny hurling was a restaurant menu, Brian Cody would walk in every Sunday afternoon, take his seat and order The Usual.
Kilkenny’s template is based on work-rate. The first requirement for opponents is to match them in this department. Work rate is an attitude. It comes from the ‘no quarter given’ school of meeting fire with fire and refusing to give in. Galway manager Anthony Cunningham knows this will be a basic requirement for success tomorrow in CrokePark but they cannot allow their emotions to boil over. Galway must be fiercely aggressive while building pressure but in a cool, composed, calculated way. They must look at the champions as individuals rather than as a collective and seek to exploit any perceived individual weaknesses in the Cats’ defence.
The jury is still out on Kilkenny’s full-back line. Paul Murphy is the best in Ireland in his position. He plays the right corner position instinctively and covers across impressively. His colleagues, Joey Holden and Shane Prendergast, lack experience in their positions at this level but if the Galway management are concerned about their inside defence, Brian Cody may have similar concerns.
Holden - wing back for most games last season - or Prendergast, haven’t been tested so far. Kilkenny, ideally, like to play in their defensive zones but they go man to man if the need arises, following their man if the opposition forwards roam. On this occasion it could prove dangerous for the All-Ireland champions if Paul Murphy is lured out from his corner by Cathal Mannion, leaving Joe Canning and Jason Flynn in a two-on-two inside.
Galway might see possibilities in this tactic, killing two birds, so to speak. They need to clog up midfield, take Murphy’s experience from the full-back line while lessening his considerable influence. If Mannion can make clever incursions into midfield, followed by his marker, his pace, stamina and long range shooting ability could cause the Cats some problems.
The match programme shows two players from each side in midfield. The reality is that six to 10 can occupy this space at any given time. Apart from possession at the edge of the square, gaining the edge in this sector will have a big bearing on the game. Although listed on the programme as ‘forwards’, Kilkenny’s Colin Fennelly spends a lot of time there while Eoin Larkin and Ger Aylward drop out there regularly. But Richie Hogan, dropping deep from centre-forward, has colonised this area in each of the championship games this year. He times his incursions impeccably, pouncing on breaking ball to set up attacks or stroking over points from play.
Galway conceded this sector to the same opponents in the Leinster final, but it is vital they gain parity there tomorrow.
Man-marking Hogan in such a wide area is a most difficult task. I would have centre-back Iarla Tannian policing Hogan but dropping back in front of his full-back once the centre-forward strayed beyond 50m from goal. For this tactic to work, the half-forward line would play further out from goal. Midfielders Andy Smith and David Burke would have help to cut down the time and space afforded to opponents while working hard to cut out any offloads to supporting Kilkenny players.
Wing backs, Aidan Harte and Daithí Burke, would have to support quickly up their wings where they would be well-placed to hit quality diagonal balls over half-backs to their inside-forwards. But all this would have to be planned and executed well.
Of course, providing Kilkenny’s TJ Reid with a few quality balls at the edge of the square can lay waste to the best Galway plans. Getting Hogan and Reid on the ball as often as possible will be a Kilkenny objective.
Galway have to go into this game with realistic targets. Hogan and Reid are difficult to subdue completely.To maintain confidence and release pressure on their markers, lessening their considerable influence rather than blotting them out completely, should be a Galway objective.
Already this year I have mentioned Anthony Cunningham’s reference to Galway training as following an ‘improvement programme’. Pride of place in this programme for the past number of weeks had to be coaching full back colleagues Padraig Mannion, John Hanbury and Johnny Coen on how to defend high deliveries.
At any one time, TJ Reid, Richie Power, Walter Walsh, Eoin Larkin and Richie Hogan - all very strong under high deliveries - could see service in the Kilkenny inside line of attack. Telling the aforementioned Galway defenders what is needed will not provide the required result. Video analysing the Kilkenny ‘catchers’, studying their hand, foot and body positions as they go for catches should have been first on the agenda.
Depriving them of possession, bringing the ball to ground is the percentage play in these scenarios. Attempting to grab a ball in the air from Kilkenny attackers at the edge of your square is at best 50-50, too low a percentage for a defender in an All-Ireland final. In all sessions practice involving the goalkeeper and the full back trio was required. Preventing a clean catch and negating the ‘flickdown’, a clever piece of stick work, used regularly by Kilkenny to create space up front needed some work. Pitting them against the likes of Johnny Glynn (a leftie like TJ Reid), Joe Canning and Jason Flynn - all strong in the air - provides some experience for the upcoming battle. It doesn’t guarantee success but it means that they will be better prepared than they were against Tipp where defending the high ball left a lot to be desired. At least this time they’re forearmed.
Cunningham is a smart manager. He has learned from each championship outing this year, improving his team as they went. Galway players have expressed huge satisfaction with the set-up and they are playing with a certain resolve. This game could be similar to the 2009 final. Kilkenny deserve to be favourites but Galway can push them all the way - but it remains to be seen if they have the necessary attributes to negate the Kilkenny strengths when the pressure comes on.
They will get chances. Taking them will be key.
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