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Friday 9 December 2016

Cats to survive the first test of summer

If could be a classic if Galway backs stand firm - but you can't bet against Kilkenny

FACT: Galway hurlers have won their last two Leinster fixtures by a cumulative 33 points. Another fact: Kilkenny had 24 points to spare in their solitary cakewalk.

Conclusion: neither Leinster finalist has been dragged from its comfort zone.

For at least one of our protagonists, that is set to change in Croke Park tomorrow (4.0, live on RTÉ 2). For the sake of a hurling championship that - to date - has surprisingly lagged behind the last three stellar editions, we can only hope that both rivals are forced into places where hard questions are asked.

Then we might just have a classic on our hands.

As it stands, there is sense that this could be a humdinger to emulate the drawn All-Ireland final of 2012, or even last year's original Leinster semi-final stalemate ... but we cannot be sure. Why? Well, for the most part, we cannot be sure of Galway.

That may sound unfair on a team that has (a) don't forget, survived one white-knuckle ride, in a drawn opener with Dublin they looked destined to lose for much of the second half; and (b) that has subsequently steamrolled both Dublin (in the replay) and Laois.

The sad truth, though, is that there will always be asterisks attached to Galway's latest renaissance until they deliver a sustained run of results in matches of substance.

They went a long way towards that tantalising goal in 2012, flooring Kilkenny in that surreal Leinster final ambush; but Anthony Cunningham's men couldn't quite close the deal in the All-Ireland rematch and were ultimately blown away in the replay.

Now, after two fallow summers, Cunningham looks to have come again with a team capable of downing a heavyweight. Could it happen tomorrow? Quite possibly. Will it? We have our doubts.

Part of the problem is that Kilkenny looked in such sprightly fettle two Sundays ago. It was almost a case of "whatever you can do, we can do better" ... Galway had recovered from a stumbling first quarter against Laois, the evening before, to go score-crazy, using a Tullamore gale to wreak havoc for the second day running.

The following afternoon, though, Kilkenny effectively killed off Wexford even when facing a strong wind; then twisted the knife even further when they had the elements.

Woeful and all as Wexford were in Nowlan Park, it was still instructive to see forwards who have won it all - Richie Hogan, TJ Reid, Eoin Larkin - moving so sprightly and with such ruthless intent. Slickness of touch allied to selfless workrate are almost taken as a given under Brian Cody, and nothing had changed there: "The appetite hasn't waned - it seems to get better and better," one seasoned Kilkenny observer noted. At the same time, there wasn't a hint of either rustiness (after a 12-week lay-off) or staleness (after so many years at or near the summit).

PLUNDERS

Then you had Ger Aylward, coming in to plunder 3-5 from play on his first SHC start.

And so the conveyor belt keeps moving.

Aylward, of course, has served his apprenticeship in the Nowlan Park school of hard knocks. It would still be advisable to reserve judgement until we've seen the Glenmore forward over a longer period, but Cody has options: Colin Fennelly was a late injury cry-off against Wexford but is another with the pace and skill set to test the mettle of Galway's two rookie full-backs, John Hanbury and Pádraig Mannion.

To date, the duo has coped quite admirably with championship's cut-and-thrust ... but that was the mocks; now for the real exam, honours paper.

The defensive question marks surrounding Galway are compounded by the "slight" hamstring tear that threatens the participation of skipper, David Collins.

However, if Galway's rearguard had limit the damage of Messrs Hogan, Reid, Larkin and Aylward, then victory could be within reach. Injury-free and flying over the past two matches, Joe Canning has been back approaching his awesome best; but crucially it's not all about Joe this time. Others have stepped up, no one more thrillingly than Cathal Mannion against Dublin.

The stage is set. Galway can but Kilkenny - we suspect - will.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Kilkenny 2/5, Draw 10/1, Galway 5/2

VERDICT: Kilkenny

LEINSTER SHC FINAL: KILKENNY v GALWAY, CROKE PK, TOMORROW 4.0

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