WHAT with Offaly forced to score a last-minute free to draw with Antrim in regular time before going on to win in extra-time, the same Offaly then going on to draw with Galway in the semi-final before losing to another late point in the replay, it’s already been a topsy-turvy season in Leinster hurling.
Hell, didn’t Carlow beat Laois in the All-Ireland qualifiers after losing by six points to them twice already this year? Didn’t Cork have a comprehensive win over Tipp in Munster with everyone tipping them to lose, and let’s not even get into the football – surprise after surprise. As we head into the Leinster senior hurling final in Croke Park this Sunday then, Kilkenny bidding for six-in-a-row and their 12th provincial title in 13 seasons, one man hoping that the trend of upsets in the 2010 GAA season continues – for this weekend at least – is Galway centre-back Tony Óg Regan. “Yes – hopefully there will be one more on Sunday! But it’s a good thing, all those upsets, it had become very predictable for a number of years but every team now feels they have a fighting chance.”
He could have been involved with the football championship himself, of course, coming from blue-blooded big-ball stock, his father Tony ‘Horse’ O’Regan (“Surely one of the great GAA nicknames!” reckons his son) a former Roscommon stalwart. Tony Óg began life as a dual player, was going well in football with Salthill until fate took a hand. “I was called in to the county minor hurlers and with the Leaving Cert coming up as well, I had to make a choice. We won the All-Ireland that year, and at 16, in front of a crowd of 60,000 – that would have a big bearing on your decision on the best way to go! As a young lad I just felt hurling with Galway was what I wanted to do, even though I was enjoying my football.”
That was a decade ago, however, when Galway were picking up underage titles at a rate of knots, fuelling a lot of hype that an All-Ireland senior championship was sure to follow on very shortly – a lot of accompanying pressure also, especially as the years went by and still no title. What kind of pressure is on this team then, especially in light of the fact that even at this late stage in the season they have lost only one competitive game, have already won the Walsh Cup in Leinster, and the National League? “It’s there alright, but it’s really all about the pressure you put on yourself. From the start of year you train as hard as you can, then you go out and try to start winning matches, and that’s what we’ve done this year. No-one (in the squad) wants to look back, and you can’t look too far down the line either or you trip yourself up. We’ve won the Walsh Cup, won the National League, now it’s the Leinster championship, and we’re going to try and win that as well. We’re not hung up on what happened in years past, nor on what people on the outside expect of us. It’s just about winning your place, then trying to win the next game in front of you, win the competition you’re playing in.”
That attitude served Galway well in the semi-final two-game saga against Offaly; in other years, with Offaly coming back as they did in the first half of the drawn game, then repeating those heroics in the second half of the replay, another Galway team might have caved, but the 2010 version kept its nerve, and in the final 10 minutes of the replay closed up shop again at the back, while Ger Farragher and Joe Canning did the necessary on the scoring front. They suffered a lot of criticism for those displays, did Galway, and the defence especially, 3-16 conceded the first day, 2-18 on the second. But, says Tony Óg, not enough credit being given to a fine Offaly attack for that. “In both games they got goals at just the right time; in the replay, just when we looked like pulling away they’d get a goal, back within shouting distance again which gave them great heart, great hope, great momentum. They have a lot of scoring threat, especially in the full-forward line. Our backs played well both days, starved them of ball for long periods, but they managed to poach really good goals each day, and that’s the sign of a really dangerous forward line. Survive on very little for long periods, then explode with a couple of goals – that’s what Offaly did, kept themselves in the game.”
You’re describing another potent attack there Tony, aren’t you? “Yes, Kilkenny are probably the most dangerous team of all for doing that, a purple patch for 10 minutes, 2-4 or 2-5 and you’re suddenly a long way back, and no way back. Last year (Leinster semi-final loss) it was points, 10 in a row, Eoin Larkin getting a few, several other players stepping in with a couple. If we can avoid those patches in a game we have a chance. Every ball has to be contested against them in every area of the pitch; tackle like your life depends on it, try to avoid having those periods where you’re out of the game. But Kilkenny do have that goal threat – every forward line needs it, and we have it with Joe (Canning), Damien (Hayes), Iarla (Tannian).” So, more surprises in store yet this season? “Offaly will prove in the qualifiers that they are a serious team, up there with anyone in the country when they play to their potential. We were up for it the first day, definitely up for it the second day, but just found them extremely hard to beat. As results so far this year have shown, in hurling and football, you can take no-one for granted these days; if your head isn’t right going into the game, you’re in for a hiding.” And there’s the rub; we know Kilkenny heads will be right.
But will Galway’s?
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