WITHOUT meaning to, and most certainly not wanting to be showy, but you almost have to avoid writing ‘annual’ and ‘All-Ireland final’ in the one sentence in relation to modern Kilkenny, writes John Knox.
Such have been the magnificent hurling times enjoyed by fans in the county during the past dozen years and more that a September date in Croker Park is almost becoming the norm. A seventh appearance in the final on the trot, who would ever have imagined that?
On Sunday, manager Brian Cody will lead Kilkenny into their 12th decider since he took on the job in 1999.
Unbelievable, astounding, use whatever word you like, but it all added up to magical times for Kilkenny people the world over as their champions zoomed to the top of the All-Ireland roll of honour with 33 MacCarthy Cup wins.
The stats are hard to credit – eight All-Ireland wins; four National League/Championship doubles, and a possible fifth on the horizon; an All-Ireland four in-a-row oh, and yes, defeats in three finals.
We are all living through and enjoying this golden era for Kilkenny, and there could be another glorious chapter written in Croke Park on Sunday’s when the Cats play their conquerors of the Leinster final, Galway in the All-Ireland.
Leinster final stands out
And Galway will be attempting to do a ‘Kilkenny on Kilkenny’ in this unexpected shoot-out when they bid to repeat what the Cats did to Offaly in 2000 by beating them in the championship twice in the one season, in the Leinster and national finals.
So it can be done, which goes very much against popular opinion in this county that would suggest Galway won’t beat their opponents twice in the one year. Listen, this is sport, and anything can happen!
That Leinster final of July 8 is the stand out game of the year to date as far as Kilkenny folk are concerned. No one saw it coming, certainly not a 2-21 to 2-11 hammering during which the westerners at different times out-ran, out-fought, out-thought and physically pushed around their opponents.
It was a bad day for the Cats. The players made untypical unforced errors at an alarming rate. Losing was bad enough, but the way Galway dictated the pattern of play shocked. Turning that 10-point defeat into a victory on Sunday is the challenge, one the players are bursting to try and achieve.
Forget the National League success, and the drubbing dished out to Cork in the final. Forget all the fine results in that competition, and even the most satisfying and unexpected – in terms of size – victory over arch rivals, Tipperary, in the All-Ireland semi-final. The provincial final reverse is the subject that prompts most debate heading into this game.
People here think, no, they are sure, it can be turned around. July absentees J.J. Delaney and Michael Fennelly are back, but another mighty warrior, Michael Rice, will be missing again after suffering a horrific finger injury in the semi-final.
Galway, Joe Canning, Damien Hayes, James Skehill, Fergal Moore and company have lofty ambitions. They could be classed as the David of the contest. Their players are all chasing their first senior All-Ireland success as the county contests its first final since 1993, and first win since 1988.
The Goliaths they face – or the Kilkenny team that played in the semi-final – have won an astonishing 69 senior All-Ireland medals between them. That 69-0 divide must be a record in any final.
Such things don’t decide matches, however. On field effort does, and this is a final that is going to produce hell for leather action all the way.
Kilkenny are the workaholics of hurling, the ones who upped work-rate during matches to dazzling new heights in recent seasons. The Cats flog opponents into submission through the sheer power and force of their unrelenting play, with a fair spattering of finely honed skill thrown in.
Recent examples – Cork in the League final; Dublin in the opening round of the championship; Limerick in the second half of the All-Ireland quarter-final; Tipp in the second half of the semi.
Beaten when failed to impose will
The one day they didn’t impose their will on proceedings was in the Leinster final and they were beaten.
Galway management know what is facing their charges. They have suggested they will be ready; they will meet the challenge head on. Their much talked about ‘tactic’ of packing their defence is nothing more than players working harder and covering back deep, especially the forwards, they suggest so they know a thing or two about hard work all over the field.
So what will be the greater motivating force – Galway’s desire to repeat the Leinster final effort or Kilkenny’s to make up for a performance that was below par that day?
Methinks it will be the latter. The Leinster final perplexed, but I cannot help thinking that Kilkenny were lacking something after the blasting of Dublin in the earlier round. So much time, so much effort, so much planning went into the Dublin game that when it was over maybe, just maybe, concentration dipped a bit.
That won’t happen this time. Galway will be facing a different hurling animal, a wounded, riled one. The attitude and approach will be different.
J.J. Delaney, I would expect, will tackle the massive threat that is the extraordinary Joe Canning, Galway’s most inspiring figure. Jackie Tyrrell might be asked to do it, but I don’t see Delaney being changed from the edge of the square where Canning is expected to be posted.
Don’t be surprised if Paul Murphy is asked to run with the speedy Damien Hayes. Hurler of the year Michael Fennelly will make a massive difference in midfield for Kilkenny. His availability this time is a huge plus, a potential game changer.
And Richie Hogan, who missed the semi-final because of suspension, could be set for a return. He is a big talent, a big game performer, someone with the temperament for the biggest stage of all. I don’t see him being left out.
Manager Brian Cody and fellow selectors, Michael Dempsey and Martin Fogarty would like to have him aboard, but where is the question because the six forwards who started the semi-final – Shefflin, Reid, Larkin, Fennelly, Power, Fogarty – will all be retained. If Hogan (Richie) fails to make the cut, then Dicksboro’s Cillian Buckley will fill in for Rice in a 1 for 1 change at midfield.
Not as young as some think
Galway won’t stray very far from their Leinster final side. While 14 members of their under-21 panel beaten by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final are on the senior squad, only Jerry Coen, Niall Burke, Conor Cooney and James Regan made the senior team in the semi. Their team is not as young as some people would like to suggest.
The semi win over Cork was a big result for Galway, not only because it earned them a place in the decider, but more especially because the team laid the ghost that it could put good performances back to back. Manager Anthony Cunningham was especially pleased with that.
Still one would be inclined to think that Galway’s lack of experience could go against them. I know they did well against Cork, but for me the Leesiders made poor use of the ball in the second half when chasing the match. A lack of big men, ball winners up front – apart from Pa Cronin – went against them, as did inaccurate deliveries.
In the same type of situation Kilkenny would be more judicious in their use of the ball, and they would have better catchers in the likes of Shefflin, Larkin, Power and possibly the best of the lot, T.J. Reid.
One doesn’t by any means want to take an iota from Galway’s win in Leinster, but the thinking in the Kilkenny camp has been that they under performed that day. The detour that followed that reverse took the expected Kilkenny/Tipperary final off the agenda.
Now Galway are the kings, the team in Sunday’s final with a 2012 championship belt (Leinster) in the bag. However, Sunday’s is THE title to win.
Kilkenny have what it takes to make it theirs! Henry (Shefflin) and Noel (Hickey) can rewrite the records and join Noel Skehan as winners of nine All-Ireland medals.