“One of the sweetest we’ve ever won”

Nabokov tells us there is no science without fancy, nor art without facts. Can we apply that to yesterday in Croke Park?

Of course. Kilkenny’s All-Ireland victory might have been based in facts hard enough to warm the heart of Mr Gradgrind himself, but it was also powered by imagination. They shot fourteen points in the second half - from eight different scorers. Angles, initiative and technique all combined correctly.

Galway, by contrast, gave the romantics a cause but couldn’t offer a foundation strong enough to sustain a win. A quick perusal of the facts shows four points for the westerners in the regulation 35 minutes of the second half, which has never been enough to build a victory. The 82,000-plus people in packed Croke Park came for the exceptional and left with the traditional.

That wasn’t how it panned out early on. The usual conversations along Jones Road on an All-Ireland final afternoon centre on late withdrawals, or additions, and Richie Power and Jackie Tyrrell’s sudden availability conformed to this pattern yesterday.

However, there was also a good deal of chat about Galway’s defenders, and in particular how they’d deal with the most highly anticipated aerial barrage since Curtis LeMay was at large in the Pentagon.

The conservative opinion was that a management team which allowed its full-back to be out-fielded for three goals in the semi-final before finally moving him - and immediately conceding a penalty - would not fare well when faced with some of the best fielders in the game; the less conservative view was that TJ Reid had surely spent the last fortnight sharpening his goal celebration.

Instead of Reid, however, Kilkenny stationed Walter Walsh - all 6’4” of him - at full-forward, where John Hanbury picked him up. When the early goal came, however, it was through ground attack. On 12 minutes, Walsh scrambled for possession and won the ball before slipping it to Reid like a spy handing over an envelope in Berlin. Reid punished Galway but as they’d done against Tipperary, Galway recovered with points to wipe out the deficit.

That was consistent with a first-half of immense commitment. The word work-rate was on heavy rotation in every match preview and Galway couldn’t be faulted on that score yesterday before the break, with an emblematic ejection of Eoin Larkin from the field of play under the Hogan Stand.

The pressure they put Kilkenny under translated to a rash of frees conceded in the first 35 minutes, and at one point Cats boss Brian Cody was so exercised as to be in very close proximity with the fourth official on the sideline.

Galway were well worth a three-point half-time lead.

What happened thereafter? Let Richie Power talk you through the Kilkenny dressing-room at the break.

“To be honest, the players took it over,” said the Kilkenny forward. “We took it over ourselves. A few guys spoke, Jackie (Tyrrell) in particular spoke really, really well.

“We just threw the gauntlet down to the lads. We didn’t hurl well in the first half, I thought, and we were still only three points behind. We always seem to have a purple patch in the ten-fifteen minutes after half-time, and that’s how it proved today.

“Looking at the guys from the line, they were phenomenal in the second half, every single one of them. Talking to a few of them, it’s definitely one of the sweetest that we’ve ever won.

“The position we were in at half-time . . . fair dues to Galway, as a reporter said, they did to us what Kilkenny try to do to some teams. Galway’s hunger, their tackling, everything was top class, and we knew going out for the second half to leave everything on the field. We knew if we did that we wouldn’t be too far away.”

drop cap

Call it Kilkenny’s patented third-quarter push, as Power did; call it a flying start to the second half; or call it what it was - the steady accumulation of correct options. The Italian phrase found inscribed across the faces of old clocks comes to mind: each one hurts, and the last one kills.

Evidence. TJ Reid inched closer to a hurler of the year award yesterday by consistently winning the ball and laying it off to the free man, or taking it on himself as appropriate. His example was followed closely by Padraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley in particular. Colin Fennelly’s match was Kilkenny’s in miniature - he struggled with his touch and found himself thwarted at times but he kept working and was rewarded with two points. Doing the right thing is its own reward, and then some.

When the game came to resemble a squeeze-box as the second half, with crowds occupying the middle third then swarming forward and back, Kilkenny held their shape better. Even as the game ticked into the final ten minutes there was only four between them, but some four-point gaps look insurmountable, particularly when Joe Canning put an eminently scorable free wide, and soon after Conor Whelan failed to test Eoin Murphy with a clear sight of goal. Canning’s late, late goal from a free meant respectability and nothing more.

There was much mirth online last week at the discovery of a Roy Keane lookalike in an Italian renaissance fresco but Anthony Cunningham’s habitual expression, that of an Italian monk tortured by doubt, looks more suited to the Uffizi. Yesterday the Galway manager admitted his side could have been more ahead at the break, but . ..

“But you are playing Kilkenny. We had an outstanding first-half and deserved to be three up. Could have been more but I don’t think that was the winning or losing of the game.

“But as time went on we panicked a bit and had a few bad wides. That is extremely hard to get better at, but it is something we have got better at. It is within our grasp to win an All-Ireland. We are within inches of it. But it is how we react from it - we have been here before and it took us a couple of years more than we wanted to get back here.

“All in all we have to keep working.”

Is it fair to use the showpiece game as a barometer for the season? Go further - to use a weekend’s action as the test case for a year’s quality? Saturday night’s football semi-final replay - zesty and astringent after the toxicity of the previous weekend - will hardly rescue the memory of a lumpy football championship packed with fibre and roughage, barring a stone classic between Dublin and Kerry.

The hurling season was much the same, competitive and muscular in patches but rarely glowing in the memory. Galway-Tipperary served quality from starting gun to the finishing tape. After that?

Yesterday’s final was a game that suited the season - often testing to the point of brutality but with flashes of skill at a premium, save Jason Flynn’s sumptuous touch and point in the first half.

One of the great questions thrown up by 2015 has been the tactical future for hurling, a query that remains valid. But surely the depth of hurling strength is a more pressing matter: Kilkenny won the All-Ireland with players like Richie Hogan and Michael Fennelly clearly hampered by injury, while when Richie Power came on yesterday it was his first competitive action in five months.

What does that say about the other counties in hurling?

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