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Wednesday 18 July 2018

Galway still the team to beat after epic sequel

Galway captain David Burke lifts the Bob O’Keeffe Cup
Galway captain David Burke lifts the Bob O’Keeffe Cup

Where do you start after another epic contest between two of hurling's greatest rivals?

Perhaps the best place is at the finish: with their Leinster crown on the line, and Kilkenny reprising a familiar role as the vampire who can't be killed, Galway landed eight of the last ten points.

Enough to drive a wooden stake through Kilkenny hearts? Not quite: Galway's status as favourites to retain Liam MacCarthy has clearly been enhanced by this gargantuan duel over two weekends, but Kilkenny are still very much in the All-Ireland race.

Perhaps their biggest enemy is time: whereas Galway have three weeks to recover for their semi-final, battered Kilkenny bodies and tired minds have less than a week to recharge before their date with Limerick.

"It's going to be a huge battle," Brian Cody admitted. "Limerick were being spoken of really by lots of people as the biggest danger to Galway. We know the quality they have ... but we've just got to take on the challenge.

"If we had won today, we'd be in the All-Ireland semi-final. If we win next week, we'll be in the semi-final. So I don't mind postponing for a week if that happens."

It's a tough ask for Cody's new and evolving team, but they're learning fast. And yesterday, in a Semple Stadium cauldron, they were given a crash-course by the best.

In stark contrast to the original slow-burner, Galway were buzzing from the first bell.

"There were some elements of the game that we weren't too happy with," Micheál Donoghue remarked, harking back to the draw. "Some of it Kilkenny forced upon us, so we knew we had to come out of the traps early."

Donoghue also won the early tactical battle: Galway's policy of raining aerial missiles on top of the recalled Johnny Glynn had Kilkenny's full-back line in the horrors.

It would be wrong, though, to apportion blame too heavily. During that opening maroon onslaught, Kilkenny forwards were swarmed on their own puckout while, all over, men in stripes were harassed into errors by a savage Galway work ethic.

Burst

The dam burst on 13 minutes and it came from a familiar source - Daithí Burke devouring a high ball, namesake David going route one, and Glynn pouncing on the break. His shot was half-parried by Eoin Murphy but not sufficiently to prevent the goal.

Galway led by 1-4 to 0-1 and weren't remotely flattered. And, despite a second quarter Kilkenny rally, the champions upped it again approaching the half-hour.

When Joseph Cooney completed a necklace of five unanswered points in the 33rd minute, they led by 12. The venue may have differed but this had eerie echoes of the 2012 Leinster final. Shock-and-awe revisited.

Kilkenny were given a sniff of hope in the 34th minute by Ger Aylward, who bulldozed past Adrian Tuohey and Gearóid McInerney to kick their opening goal, with a major question mark over the number of steps taken by the Glenmore man. Yet they still trailed by 1-16 to 1-7 at the midpoint.

Their subsequent rousing comeback owed partly to a general surge of intensity and, more specifically, to the arrival of two decorated stars off the bench.

Colin Fennelly and Richie Hogan each contributed 1-1 from play.

True, there was a slightly freakish element to both goals - Fennelly reacted quickest when James Maher's point attempt rebounded off a post in the 41st minute, while Hogan's typically sharp ground-stroke on 54 minutes came after the ball broke loose following TJ Reid's initial incursion.

Yet Hogan's goal made it a one-point game and - possibly for the first time all day - Galway appeared vulnerable in the extreme.

But Joe Canning's riposte on the run was followed by Hawk-Eye's intervention to disallow a Conor Fogarty 'point'. From there on, Galway reignited, the flame fanned by two wonderful Cathal Mannion points from the right wing.

That brought Mannion's personal tally to 0-6 but he wasn't alone: Glynn (with 1-1 and several assists), the voracious Conor Whelan (with 0-4) and Canning (with four from play in his 0-10) all delivered big performances. Canning also tallied six wides but several of those, one howitzer goal attempt included, were on the unlucky side.

Here, perhaps, is the killer stat: Galway's starting six forwards shared 1-18 from play, their counterparts just 1-3.

All-Ireland holders - and favourites - for a reason.

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