Friday 28 October 2016

Galway beware ... stay in the long grass if you want to ambush Cats

THIS column has seen many outlandish events in Croke Park. We even had one last Sunday, as Westmeath took a second half sledgehammer to a long history of Royal oppression.

But one of the strangest occurrences we have witnessed remains the 2012 Leinster hurling final. "Shock and awe" ran the headline in the Irish Indo - it couldn't have been more apt.

It wasn't so much that Kilkenny lost a Leinster final, weird and all as that concept was for a team that had won seven on the spin. It was the manner of the maroon onslaught.

Even the final scoreline - 2-21 to 2-11 - doesn't paint the full picture. Galway had 1-6 on the board before Kilkenny finally broke their duck, via a 20th minute Henry Shefflin free. It was 2-11 to 0-1 after half-an-hour. The usually majestic Tommy Walsh was so discommoded that he hit a sideline cut straight across the field to Joe Canning for another Galway point and then, from another line ball almost straight after, had a fresh air.

Surreal stuff. Still, in some ways it was typical of Kilkenny that a game going so hideously askew ended in 'just' a ten-point defeat when at one juncture they trailed by 16. They kept chasing a long-lost cause because, well, it's part of their DNA ... and a few months later, they would have the last laugh, beating Galway in an All-Ireland final replay by 3-22 to 3-11.


This Sunday, it's back to Croke Park for another Leinster hurling final between incorrigible Cats and mercurial Tribesmen. These rivals have met numerous times during Brian Cody's eternal era but this will be just the third Leinster final between them: Galway lost the 2010 decider limply enough before hatching that remarkable ambush two years later.

It was Anthony Cunningham's maiden campaign; some of us even speculated on the dawn of something special, blithely ignoring the lessons of Galway's boom-to-bust history.

The next two seasons were unrelentingly grim. This summer would appear to be make-or-break for Cunningham's tenure, the pressure ratcheted up by a deflating league.

Yet here we are, three games and two cakewalks later, wondering if Joe Canning & Co are about to unleash 'Shock and Awe - the Sequel', aided by the arrival of a new western wunderkind, Cathal Mannion.

For all you Salthill sunshine supporters, time to preach some caution.

There are several persuasive reasons why Galway 'might' cause a mild 5/2 surprise, which can be distilled down to the following phrases: perennial potential to cut loose, current momentum, and Joe Canning.

But there are twice as many compelling reasons to back the Cats.

Here are just a few ...

(1) Galway may have racked up enormous tallies in their last two ties against Galway (5-19) and Laois (3-28) ... but therein could lie the seeds of their own downfall.

Bar the opening quarter against Laois, they haven't been tested. Forwards (even the odd defender) have been free to gobble up goals and plunder points. They won't have that luxury of space now, presuming Kilkenny bring their A-game to Croker.

(2) Galway have two greenhorns in their full-back line, John Hanbury and Pádraig Mannion.

They've coped fine so far; but look who's coming next. When the least heralded member of Brian Cody's attack saunters in for his first SHC start and scores 3-5 from play (Ger Aylward take a bow) you get another indicator of Kilkenny's benchmark of excellence.

(3) Galway may have made the fatal mistake of announcing their latest would-be renaissance in public.

Consider two of the last three times Kilkenny lost in Leinster (ignoring Dublin's famous replay triumph of 2013). Wexford had endured a disastrous league in 2004, there was talk of disquiet in the camp and they were totally written off ... but John Conran's game-plan of constant movement, brilliantly implemented by his players, created the conditions for a stunning ambush that still required a last-gasp Michael Jacob goal.

Fast-forward to 2012: Galway had scored heavily en route to the Leinster final but leaked almost as freely (4-12 against Westmeath, 3-15 against Offaly). Few people saw it coming. Maybe not even Brian Cody.

This time he is forewarned. And when that happens, he usually has the answers.

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