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Friday 17 August 2018

Galway now top dogs but has balance of power really shifted from the Cats?

Kilkenny hurling legend Henry Shefflin
Kilkenny hurling legend Henry Shefflin

We'll start with a few stats to muddy the waters. For those who believe the balance of hurling power has shifted decisively from Kilkenny (via a brief Premier County interlude) to Galway, consider the following ...

  •  Kilkenny have won their last four Championship encounters with the Tribesmen by a cumulative 26 points.
  •  Brian Cody is actually unbeaten in their last seven summer meetings, if you factor in a Leinster semi-final draw in 2014 and the All-Ireland final stalemate of 2012.
  •  Almost six years have passed since Galway last ambushed the Cats in SHC combat - that shock-and-awe Leinster final of 2012. But even that gory memory was cleansed by what eventually followed in their All-Ireland sequel.
  • Even their recent League head-to-heads are tilting towards the Black-and-Amber, who have won five of their last seven spring fixtures dating back to 2012.
  • But what of the notion that Kilkenny, since 2016 and Tipp's September demolition job, have been on the slide? Maybe so ... until you consider that they travel to Pearse Stadium this Sunday hoping to extend their winning streak, in League and Championship, to nine games on the bounce.

Pressure

And yet the visitors are 2/1 underdogs with the bookies to win their third instalment in the new Leinster round-robin series. Surely that's manna from heaven for Brian Cody, and another dollop of pressure for Micheál Donoghue's defending All-Ireland champions?

Henry Shefflin certainly thinks so. Speaking at yesterday's launch of Centra's 2018 #WeAreHurling campaign, the Kilkenny legend reckoned the pressure is on Galway to deliver this Sunday.

"It's in Pearse Stadium, home supporters, their first match (at home), they're All-Ireland champions and we probably haven't see any statement from them so far this year that they are the top team in hurling," Shefflin pointed out.

"So I suppose that's where the pressure is for them, to deliver on that. I think this game would have been in their sights from last year's draw so in that sense it is (pressure).

"The back-to-back is very hard to do as well. Tipperary the last couple of times have tried to do it (and failed), there is so much focus on it.

"It will be interesting to see if they (Galway) can pull it off. It's probably early days as well. The way it's transpired with the first two matches, we all probably know the way it's going to pan out - they'll be comfortable enough then to hit the Championship from there."

As Shefflin sees it, Leinster is certainly going to plan with Dublin (albeit via a double-whammy of injury-time heartbreak) and Offaly both losing their first two fixtures. Those results will fuel the pre-summer suspicion of most observers that Galway, Kilkenny and Wexford will advance from Leinster (in whatever order) and onto the All-Ireland Series.

Shadow-boxing

As Shefflin's erstwhile forward colleague, Richie Power, wrote in his weekly RTÉ website column, under a 'Salthill shadow-boxing' sub-heading: "Galway against Kilkenny is not as huge a game as it would have been if Dublin had held on in Parnell Park. With two wins already, even if Kilkenny lose they will still likely be playing Wexford for a place in the Leinster final."

And yet Power also accepted that if Galway are serious about going back-to-back, "they'll want to lay down a marker" in what will be their first home fixture in Leinster since joining the eastern province in 2009.

Shefflin concurred.

"This is Galway's first massive match," he declared. "I think it is set up lovely for Kilkenny; they haven't played well in the last couple of weeks and I'd say the lads know that."

Certainly, the results have been better than the performances. They left it scarily late to leapfrog a previously dominant Dublin. Hindered by a gargantuan tally of 22 wides, they were only three up after 62 minutes last Sunday before easing to a nine-point home win over Offaly.

Sunday is far more of a litmus test for Cody's latest generation of Kilkenny colts. But it's still only May and, whatever the immediate result, does Shefflin fancy his county to go the Liam MacCarthy distance?

"I would give them a chance," he surmises. "Galway are ahead of everyone else at the moment but they (Kilkenny) are definitely in the pack.

"It's going to work out very well no matter what way it happens. They're comfortable enough for the rest of the round-robin and from there, who knows, I still think they have to make a bit of an improvement. Those newer players are going to have to go even higher again.

"But I suppose the great thing is that if they can get Richie (Hogan) back to form, with the way TJ (Reid) has been playing, they'll be very hard to stop then."

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