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Friday 22 September 2017

Big Joe leads Tribes to glory

Canning stars as Galway are crowned league champs with determined win over Rebels

GALWAY hurlers, for so long the nearly men, announced themselves as genuine championship contenders as they illuminated Semple Stadium with their ninth National League title -- and first in six years.

Their eight-point demolition of Cork contained a thrilling mix of dazzling score-taking (in the first half especially) and ceaseless second-half pressurising of hassled opponents. In short, a million miles removed from last week's drab NFL 'finale'.

In truth, they could have won by even more: with the game already won, a rush of late misses brought their overall wide count to 17.

Not that John McIntyre was complaining afterwards. "I'm thrilled with the performance. More often than not, when you get a performance you get the victory. The fact that it was a league final made it all the more special," the Galway manager enthused.

"We laid the foundations in the opening half against the wind, to turn over leading by four points," he expanded. "We challenged the players at half-time for Galway to bury this myth that they're not a second half team. Cork fought to the bitter end as well. I believe they wanted to win that league final, maybe partially to justify their strike last year. They were under pressure as well."

Being "churlish", McIntyre expressed disappointment with the "few sloppy wides" late on but he concluded more positively: "I'm told it's Galway's first ever victory over Cork at senior level in a national final. I'll take that."

Galway had heroes all over the field, but typically one familiar figure in a green helmet led the onslaught.

Joe Canning may struggle to take the free-taking duties back off the virtually flawless Ger Farragher, but he'll continue to hog the headlines with his masterful finishing from open play -- after 64 minutes he brought his tally for the evening to 1-5, at which point Cork already looked to have run out of energy and ideas.



Dominance

Others, though, played pivotal roles in the victory. Goalkeeper Colm Callanan made a series of fine saves to deny Cathal Naughton (twice) while deflecting Patrick Horgan's 40th minute penalty over the crossbar.

Skipper Shane Kavanagh received the TG4 'Man of the Match' award -- a reflection of the dominance enjoyed by the Galway full-back against Aisake ó hAilpín who, on this evidence, has the size but lacks the hurling ring craft to trouble the cutest defenders.

Alongside Kavanagh, Ollie Canning swept up impressively at corner-back while Farragher was the best midfielder on view, Damien Hayes had Seán óg ó hAilpín in a first quarter spin, and Aidan Harte (with three points from play) greatly enhanced his championship starting claims.

In fairness, Cork had contributed enormously to a breathless first half that oscillated back and forth and contained three goals and 23 points.

Yet they were still trailing at the midpoint, by 2-12 to 1-11, and then found scores increasingly hard to come by on the resumption as Galway upped the tempo. One of the most notable features of that second half was the pressure applied by Galway forwards on harassed Leeside defenders.

"We spoke to some individuals during the week," McIntyre confided. "There's no point having all the talent in the world and being beautiful stick men. We need Galway to be more aggressive and to stand up against the big counties and the big teams.

"Long before my time, Galway were blessed with outstanding stickmen," the Tipp native added, "but we need them to lay their bodies on the line for the maroon jersey. They certainly did that this evening."

Understandably, McIntyre isn't looking beyond their Leinster championship date with Division Two champions Wexford on May 29, while his opposite number didn't shy away from what was a harsh lesson for Cork.

"Galway upped the tempo after half-time," Denis Walsh admitted. "They were strong in the tackle and we couldn't break the tackle to move the ball on." Walsh pronounced himself happy with Cork's overall league campaign and reckoned his squad is in "good fettle", while accepting they must find a higher level for their looming Munster SHC opener against Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on May 30.

"I think it (this defeat) will help us in the long run. Today will have focused the minds," the Cork boss surmised. "We all have to get back to the drawing board now and know that in games if we're tackled and harassed, we will be punished."

Walsh wasn't complaining about the rollercoaster first half and nor could the neutrals. Those opening 35 minutes drew favourable comparison with last year's Kilkenny/Tipp league final classic. On this occasion, 14,200 fans witnessed a compendium of brilliant scores (including two trademark sideline cuts from either touchline by Cork's Ben O'Connor), the action aided by the 'let it flow' refereeing of Wexford whistler James Owens.

Galway enjoyed the perfect start with a stunning individual goal after just 75 seconds from Damien Hayes. Hayes added another point and assist for David Burke inside the opening seven minutes -- evidence of the torrid opening endured by ó hAilpín.

Yet Cork contributed handsomely to the entertainment, even though playing catch-up for most of the half. They drew level on 18 points when John Gardiner pointed a monster from halfway, and then briefly edged one point ahead on 23 minutes when Cathal Naughton kicked spectacularly to the Galway net.

Barely 30 seconds later, though, Joe Canning fielded a long ball and hammered past Donal óg Cusack. Cork supporters will rightly point to the suspiciously high number of steps taken by Big Joe; Galway apologists may counter that he had been clearly fouled in the process.

Leaving aside such pedantic quibbles, though, this was a good night for hurling -- and an even better one for Galway.

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