Many small margins have anchored Galway to the bottom of hurling’s Division 1A in 2013.
Anthony Cunningham’s side have won just one of four games and, while accepting this is the tightest league in years, there’s no denying the Tribesmen have been below their 2012 standards. No side has managed fewer scores than Galway and, in terms of defensive records, only Tipp have been worse, by a single point.
However, statistics show us this is no overnight development. Indeed there has been an incremental regression in Galway’s attacking threat from play, due to a variety of reasons. Firstly, they are now managing a return of half the amount of scores from play they achieved during last season’s peak, less than any of the other top six sides right now. They also rely more on placed balls than their five rivals in Division 1A, which is a 20% increase for them on this stage last year.
During the 2012 league, Galway managed an average 13.3 points per game from open play and that figure soared to 16.75 during their terrific Leinster championship-winning run. From there on, the drop-off was alarming as they averaged just 9.7 during the All-Ireland series when they beat Cork, drew with Kilkenny and then lost the replay: 15, 7 and 7 scores respectively from play.
So from an average of 16.4 points from play in every game up until September, Galway’s attacking threat has fallen off a cliff. Granted, a few of their mid-season peaks came against Westmeath and Offaly, but they still put up great returns from play in the Leinster final against Kilkenny and Cork in the semi-final.
Did Brian Cody figure them out though? Because in the drawn final and the replay, the Tribe managed just seven scores from play each day (2-5 and 3-4) after racking up 16 in the Leinster final. Worse still, has every other 1A side got their number too?
Their returns from play in each of the four games this season are 8, 5, 13 and 6. The 13 was unlucky too as it came in a 4-22 to 1-20 home defeat to Tipp, the team with the worst defence in the division.
Joe Canning managed 0-3 from play during that defeat, his best so far this season. His grand total — minus placed balls — from the opening two fixtures against Kilkenny and Clare was a combined 0-1; he added two more in the home draw with Cork. That’s below what we expect from the Portumna sniper and is no doubt a source of frustration for Galway fans, who believe their talisman has often been playing too far away from the square.
The in-and-out tactic with Canning worked perfectly in the Leinster final 2012. When he was at full-forward, he snapped a ball over Jackie Tyrrell in the opening minutes and found the net; drifting outfield, he dictated play and even a few errant Tommy Walsh sidelines dropped into his hand for scores. Wherever he went, so too did the ball. But not all games pan out this way.
Now either Galway have broken something that didn’t need fixing, have been missing St Thomas’ link-man David Burke more than we realised or other teams have figured out how to combat their game plan. Perhaps it’s simply a case the Tribe’s packing of the defence is now isolating their attack. So after finishing the 2012 championship with opening-play scoring returns of 2- 5 and 3-4, that trend has continued with 3-5, 0-5, 0-13 and 2-4.
Without those goals, things might look even worse — though it’s to their advantage that they are able to raise the green flag so frequently.
Canning, yet to nail one from play this season, shows great work ethic outfield but Galway have too often been denied his threat inside. Yes, they managed three goals against Kilkenny on day one of the league and have six in total but there’s no denying there is an issue. Look, for example, at their over-reliance on placed ball scores. The league average of scores from placed balls (including sidelines and there’s been just four of those in 1A so far) is 41% — Galway are most dependent with 49%.
That may not sound all that bad when you consider their rivals’ tallies — Waterford 44%, Clare 41%, Kilkenny 40%, Cork 39%, Tipperary 32% — but it’s a 20% increase on this time last season for Galway. Which makes the statistics even more anomalous because they were without Canning for the regulation league games last year, due to injury.
It may seem an odd suggestion, given it ultimately ended in defeat, but perhaps Galway are suffering a hangover from last year’s success. When so much progress is made in one season, there is always the risk of players assuming the next step is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. It might only take a couple of players switching off for this to happen.
Look at Tipperary in 2010: they had made huge strides in the previous year by winning back-to-back Munster titles for the first time in 20 years, having narrowly lost a league final in extra-time to Kilkenny, and then being told how unlucky they were to lose an epic All-Ireland final to the Cats. Roll on seven months: they had missed out on a league final and by the end of May 2010, Tipp had just been slaughtered by Cork in the Munster championship.
It took them time, an injection of fresh faces like Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher and Gearoid Ryan and a gradual improvement in the qualifiers to get back to their old selves — not to mention winning an All-Ireland. No one would be silly enough to write off Galway just yet and even a first league title since 2010 remains a possibility if they can beat Waterford at Walsh Park.
They just have to get back to what got them started as a force under Cunningham.
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