All-Ireland hurling final preview: Kilkenny v Galway
There has been an extraordinarily low-key build-up to the 2015 All-Ireland hurling final.
Still, the game is a sell-out. But in terms of selling hurling to a wider audience it has been a missed opportunity.
Of course, it is hard to get excited about Kilkenny being in another final.
Where else would the Cats be on the first Sunday in September! Since Brian Cody took charge of Kilkenny in late 1998 the county played in every final bar three (2001, 2005 and 2013) and won on ten occasions.
It is an extraordinary record by any standards. But this familiarity breeds a certain level of indifference. Brian Cody’s achievement won’t be fully recognised until he walks into the sunset and Kilkenny become mere mortals again. And we could be waiting the guts of another decade for that to happen.
Even though they haven’t captured the Liam MacCarthy Cup since 1988, the Tribesmen are one of the few counties that have offered any meaningful challenge to Kilkenny in the Cody era.
As one Kilkenny sage remarked at their All-Ireland final press day. “We fear no one but we respect Galway.”
The Tribesmen beat Kilkenny in the 2001 and 2005 All-Ireland semi-finals as well as the 2012 Leinster decider. They drew with them in the 2012 All-Ireland decider as well as last year’s Leinster semi-final when Galway famously scored three goals in the closing ten minutes.
Galway almost pulled off a famous double against Kilkenny in the 2012 championship. Their innovative tactics flummoxed the Cats in the Leinster final.
After an extraordinary first half, Kilkenny trailed by 14 points.
Kilkenny were better prepared when the teams faced each other again in the All-Ireland final a couple of months later. Still, it took a majestic performance from Henry Shefflin to pull his side back from the abyss that day.
By the replay, however, Kilkenny had the Galway system figured out and they won by 11 points. Somewhere along the line Cunningham decided that the best way to beat Kilkenny was to join them – in other words challenge them by playing them at their own game.
Only six of the Galway players that featured in the 2012 All-Ireland final replay start today. Cunningham has rebuilt Galway in a mirror image of Kilkenny.
Physically they’re bigger than the Cats. Eleven of their players are over six foot tall compared to eight for Kilkenny. The new look Galway side are capable of winning their own ball and more importantly they possess the self-belief, desire and inner steel needed to succeed.
The majority of teams would have folded had they conceded three goals as Galway did in the semi-final against Tipperary. Collectively the Tribesmen just dusted themselves down and kept knocking over the points. Ultimately, they got into the heads of the Tipperary players and intimidated them.
Cunningham himself was particularly animated on the sideline; he was in the face of the team officials and this energy transmitted itself to the players.
There is absolutely no way that Cody will allow him dictate the mood music along the touch line today. So don’t be surprised to see a confrontation between the pair.
Nobody does winning All-Ireland finals as well as Kilkenny. The occasion never fazes them and like all great teams even if a couple of their key players are subdued other heroes emerge.
The nightmare scenario for Galway is that they could well contain Kilkenny’s two most influential players, TJ Reid and Richie Hogan, but Colin Fennelly and Eoin Larkin could step up to the plate and drive them forward to the county’s 36th All-Ireland title.
Unquestionably, Galway will focus much attention on Hogan and Reid who between them have scored 4-39 from play in the 2015 championship.
Cody has a long established policy of targeting who he perceives as the weakest link in the opposition defence by dispatching his star forward to that sector. So Reid will probably switch to full forward where he is likely to be marked by rookie defender Padraig Mannion.
Reid is particularly difficult to mark; not alone is he superb in the air but because he catches the ball with his right hand it is exceedingly difficult to stop him getting the sliotar into his hand. The Ballyhale ace will score goals if he secures possession that close to goal and is left on a one-to-one with any defender.
After his traumatic experience against Seamus Callanan in the semi-final, Galway will surely offer more protection to Mannion without sacrificing one player to be a designated sweeper.
Kilkenny protect their full back line brilliantly by positioning their half-back line closer to their last line of defence and withdrawing all their other lines further back the field which has the added bonus of creating space for their forwards.
The other tactical dilemma facing Cunningham is whether to man mark Kilkenny’s playmaker Richie Hogan, who exerts an enormous influence on games with his ability to eke out possessions from the inevitable rucks which develop between the two 45m lines as well as his capacity to drift unmarked into scoring positions.
Daithi Burke is well equipped to man-mark Hogan though the Kilkenny centre forward could take him on a tour of Croke Park leaving gaps in the Galway defence which Michael Fennelly – provided his back holds up – will steam through.
Unusually for Kilkenny they have two inexperienced players in their full back line. Paudie Prendergast replaces the injured Jackie Tyrrell while team captain Joey Holden is facing his first All-Ireland final in the pivotal full back position.
Joe Canning did catch him out for a wonder goal in the Leinster final but otherwise Holden has had a flawless debut season in the number three shirt.
The Galway ace is likely to drift all over the field. His ability to link up with his colleagues will be crucial but his own long-range shooting needs to improve significantly if Galway are to reach the Promised Land.
Unlike 2012 when the pressure was on Galway after they had beaten Kilkenny in the Leinster final, the Tribesmen can throw caution to the wind and Cathal Mannion, Jonathan Glynn and in particular Jason Flynn can punish the Cats with their score-taking ability.
Psychologically it is difficult to beat the same team twice in the one championship, though not impossible. Clare did it against Tipperary in the 1997 All-Ireland series and Kilkenny look set to do it again in 2015, though not without a struggle.