Into the East: How Galway have troubled Brian Cody’s Cats during their Leinster foray

Frank Roche

What is it about post-match handshakes involving Brian Cody and his opposite number from Galway?

The glacial encounter between Cody and Henry Shefflin, in Salthill at the start of May, was enough to attract not alone blanket pictorial coverage but also countless ‘pop psychology’ column inches dissecting the relationship or otherwise that now exists between Kilkenny’s eternal master and his star pupil-turned-arch rival.

All this after a Leinster round-robin encounter, not a do-or-die battle for summer survival.

Maybe the two men knew, deep down, that they’d be meeting again five weeks down the tracks, this time with a Leinster title on the line. Maybe Cody just wanted to make his point, in silence that spoke volumes. Or maybe, just maybe, he was simply seething over that disputed free that sealed Galway victory at the death.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the Kilkenny manager was left fuming over an injury-time refereeing call against Galway. It happened a decade ago, at the end of the 2012 All-Ireland final, when Davy Glennon drew a free off Jackie Tyrrell, prompting Cody to vent his spleen in the ear of a head-shaking Anthony Cunningham on the touchline.

Joe Canning duly nailed his chance to send the game to a replay, and afterwards Cody demurred: “Surely to God the two managers are entitled to be excited. If that’s a strange thing to see, then you haven’t been at too many hurling matches.”

This is Cody’s 24th season at the Kilkenny coalface – an incredible tribute, in itself, to his longevity – but perhaps just as remarkable is the recurring nature of this perennial rivalry. Saturday’s provincial showpiece in Croke Park will be his 23rd championship encounter with Galway, the current head-to-head reading 12 Kilkenny wins, seven for Galway and three draws.

Two of those Cody triumphs came on the biggest day of all: the All-Ireland replay in ’12 and rematch three years later. On the flip side, he has lost to Galway in SHC combat almost twice as often as to anyone else – Cork and Wexford four times apiece.

Right from the early years, most notably that watershed semi-final defeat to Noel Lane’s Galway in 2001, it has been a fixture that has frequently animated the Kilkenny manager and also shaped his thinking.

Likewise, Kilkenny’s domination of this rivalry during the second half of the noughties, and again through the middle years of the last decade, prompted Galway to reappraise where they were coming up short, both physically and tactically.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway from this fascinating duel is how it has breathed new life into a previously comatose Leinster Championship.

In the 11 seasons before Galway were invited to enter Leinster in 2009, Kilkenny had lifted the Bob O’Keeffe Cup 10 times. Their sole slip-up – against Wexford in a 2004 semi-final – was only rendered possible by a Michael Jacob goal conjured up so late there was barely time for a puck-out.

Cody was in charge for nine of those 10 provincial triumphs – for six of them the victory margin was in double digits, soaring to 19 points against Wexford in ’08.

And since Galway joined the Leinster fray? True, Kilkenny have continued to wield overall supremacy, winning a further eight provincial titles compared to three for Galway and one apiece for Dublin and Wexford.

But only twice has their final winning margin veered beyond single digits, each time against Dublin. John McIntyre was Galway manager when they first crossed the Shannon in 2009, losing a titanic semi-final against Kilkenny in Tullamore by 2-20 to 3-13, having led by five during the third quarter.

“There was great excitement ahead of that match,” McIntyre recalls. “There was a fantastic atmosphere. We’d beaten Laois in our first game in Leinster, and Kilkenny were going for the four-in-a-row of All-Irelands. We knew it was going to take something special to beat them . . . we ended up losing by four, but we gave a good account of ourselves and gave Kilkenny a serious rattling.”

On the wider question of Galway’s ground-breaking geographical move, the Tipp native says: “I genuinely believe the only reason Galway ended up in Leinster was because Kilkenny were so dominant. It was kind of a marriage of convenience really.

"It was a one-horse town really, the Leinster hurling championship. And while there would have been resistance in some of the other counties to Galway coming east, I think in the heel of the hunt, the bottom line was they needed to make the Leinster hurling championship more competitive – and Galway fitted the bill in that respect.”

It’s a moot point whether the arrival of an ambitious pretender from the west fuelled a renaissance in the east, from Dublin and Wexford.

“It’s difficult to get a handle on that,” McIntyre muses. “Obviously, Galway’s arrival in Leinster coincided with a resurgence in Dublin’s fortunes, especially under Anthony Daly. And Wexford have always been capable of the isolated victory against the odds over Kilkenny.

"But I don’t think it would have done either county any harm in the context of, ‘God, we can’t allow this team coming in from the west to be showing us up’ and all that.

“I suppose, deep down, a lot of supporters in Wexford and Offaly and Dublin would have felt we’ve enough trouble here trying to deal with Kilkenny, never mind Galway coming in as well. So, there was a bit of self-preservation in their attitude to inviting Galway into the Leinster Championship.

“But look it, the reality is the Leinster hurling championship is a more competitive title race than it had been. And I think it’s done Galway good as well.”

This Saturday will see two Kilkenny icons share the same Leinster final touchline: the latest twist in a rivalry that keeps on giving.

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