Against men, not giants, now is Galway’s time. But...

A few minutes after the 2012 All-Ireland final replay Conor Hayes, on duty with Galway Bay FM, was making his way out of the press area in Croke Park when he stopped for a moment. “I once asked an old man what was the best time to cut a hawthorn stick,” Hayes announced.

“Now,’ he said.” Now. Today. When Galway enter the fray with, unprecedentedly, six outings behind them. Tried, tested, planed, sanded, burnished.

Now. Today. When Kilkenny enter the fray with Richie Power, the man who dragged them over the finishing line 12 months ago, not having hurled a single inter-county minute in the meantime.

Now. Today. When Galway can for once be relied on to bring qualities like poise and calmness and control to the dance – control above all. Think of the way they took the extra half-second in possession against Tipperary instead of panicking and attempting to force the issue. Think of David Burke and Joe Canning for the winning point. The heat in the kitchen was oppressive, yet each played the simple ball and trusted the next man to do likewise.

Now. Today. When Kilkenny take the field with their least convincing — a relative term in their argot, admittedly – iteration on the big day since 2004 and a bench that was once as bountifully stocked as Kim Kardashian’s undergarments no longer containing a slate of game-breakers as of yore.

Now. Today. Three weeks after Canning gained possession from the throw-in at the start of the second half against Tipperary. What would Henry have done? Precisely what Canning did. Get on the ball and set the temperature.

Now. Today. When, unlike 2012, the challengers are facing not giants but men. No half-back line of Walsh, Hogan and Delaney. No forward line with Shefflin.

Now. Today. Three weeks after Galway produced a skilled forger’s impression of Kilkenny’s hustle and bustle. Cyril Donnellan’s hounding of James Woodlock that led to Canning’s converted lineball from under the Hogan Stand early in the second half. The swarm tackling that led to the sideline cut, and thereafter to Burke’s point, on the far side a few minutes afterwards. Jonathan Glynn’s mugging of Padraic Maher for Cathal Mannion’s late point. A word for it all? Kilkennyesque. It’s showing on Netflix as a series called Maroon is the New Black and Amber.

Now. Today. When Kilkenny field a full-back line that contains two novices and that doesn’t contain Jackie Tyrrell. Tyrrell, the first name on the team sheet with this Galway forward line in mind. Tyrrell, outstanding in the Leinster semi-final replay in Tullamore last year, shuttling back and forth across the full line armed with a giant sweeping brush in the shape of an ash plant.

Now. Today.

The holders’ defence hasn’t been tested all summer. Not by Wexford, not by Galway except sporadically and certainly not by Waterford with their two-man forward line. Minus Power and Michael Fennelly the holders won the Leinster final by seven points and weren’t required to stir themselves.

All well and good. Still, one has to ask, if only for pig iron. While they’ve broken the 20-point barrier in each of their outings, is there a possibility Kilkenny have merely been giving the appearance of having a ton in hand? What do they have under the bonnet? Or have they made a point of keeping the handbrake on, to be released with a flourish today?

Waterford had been warned what to expect in the semi-final. They were still unprepared for their opponents’ full-force relentlessness from the off. One survivor of 2008 revealed last month was much more of a physical trial for the Déise than that ill-starred All Ireland final had been. Galway, however, will not be similarly discombobulated.

They’re a bigger team than Waterford. They’re a bigger team than Kilkenny. That forward line. Built like a bunch of Disney robots or Transformers or whatever your four-year-old nephew might obsess over. Galway will begin here from the type of physical platform no other team, give or take Limerick, would be capable of bringing to a game with Kilkenny. It is quite a starting point.

The Leinster final can be used in evidence as an exhibit without necessarily being Exhibit A. Not in view of the evidence Galway compiled in the meantime. Had David Burke goaled from that at the Davin End 13 minutes into the second-half it would have put the challengers two points up. Instead he missed and Ger Aylward pointed from the puck-out for a four-point swing. Thereafter Kilkenny went through the motions.

If Burke had goaled? One imagines the winners, with more than half an hour to deploy their armed response unit, would have hit back and got there in any case. But that was the Galway of early July. This is the Galway of two months later, with the scalps of Cork and Tipperary dangling from their belt. Yet has enough really changed in the meantime to swing it for the underdogs?

Still on that Burke chance. It arose because Canning, Glynn and colleagues got stuck in down Kilkenny’s left flank and made a series of hooks and blocks. A preview of what they’d get up to against Tipperary. Fools that we are, we overlooked it or forgot about it.

Today will not provide asymmetric warfare like Kilkenny/Waterford did but it’ll be tactical nonetheless. No sweepers but players or banks of players sitting deep. Discrete objectives on each side. Galway looking to hammer away at Joey Holden and Shane Prendergast and to prevent Cillian Buckley revelling in the same time on the ball he did in the semi-final. Kilkenny seeking to isolate Iarla Tannian and presumably hit John Hanbury with a variety of questions from a variety of attackers, starting with TJ Reid.

Some other observations.

The champions retain eight of their team from 2012, the challengers six. Substantial changesbut not drastic.

Galway versus Tipperary. The first match in the history of the GAA where not the losing team but the winning team were entitled to say afterwards, “Change full-forwards and we’ll fight ye again.” Canning’s tally of 15 wides in his last three outings is surely partly attributable to his astonishment at the discovery he’s no longer required to turn water into wine by himself. The wealth of ball he processed in the three matches more than outweighed the wides. But there were still a couple of Hail Mary efforts too many against Tipp. Two today would be pushing it. Three would be a sackable offence.

The Galway lads zapped a series of 20- and 30-metre balls straight into the gluey hand of a colleague in the semi-final, always an indicator of good coaching. Kilkenny can be relied on to close down the delivery guys with more diligence, though, and the success Galway enjoyed on Darren Gleeson’s puckouts will not be repeated.

While Aylward has added a thrust and bullheadedness the champions’ forward line needed, his occasionally indifferent striking notwithstanding, if there’s a Kilkenny forward likely to make the difference it’s Colin Fennelly. We know what Reid and Hogan can do and probably will do. But Fennelly working hard yet scoring nothing and Fennelly working hard and scoring, say, three points comprise two very different entities.

If there’s a Galway forward likely to make the difference – well, take your pick. Maybe Donnellan for his accuracy. Maybe Jason Flynn, who did well in Tullamore last year and has more of a breadth to his game than Glynn.

Your correspondent keeps banging on about the importance of the elder Fennelly and makes no apologies for it. Of Kilkenny’s five goals against Tipperary last September he supplied the assist for – staggeringly – four of them. They got 70 minutes into him in the semi-final and they’ll be thankful of his presence today as a shield for Padraig Walsh when Colm Callanan dumps his puck-outs on Glynn.

Richie Hogan, our little interpreter of space. Glorious refutation of the charge that hurling’s playground had barred all but the monsters. So many positions where he might be deployed or drift to today, so many potential markers, that the head aches in running the permutations.

Galway could hurl very well without winning. Kilkenny will not. Kilkenny’s patented third-quarter push. Forewarned does not necessarily equate to forearmed. The pattern of the second-half will be dictated in this period.

Moments before half-time in the semi-final, Seamus Callanan was wide with a free from under the Hogan. Standing a couple of yards away, deep in conversation with Barry Kelly, was Anthony Cunningham. Entirely coincidental, naturally. But Cunningham will do what has to be done and his players will do what has to be done. Again, an essential starting point when facing Kilkenny.

The time to cut a hawthorn stick is now. Today. After all of which, the verdict is surely obvious. Kilkenny.

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