Cody’s men can bring home the bacon

We expected to be heading to venues across Kilkenny next weekend for the opening rounds of the senior and intermediate hurling league/championships.

We expected to be heading to venues across Kilkenny next weekend for the opening rounds of the senior and intermediate hurling league/championships.

Instead supporters will travel to Croke Park hoping to see Kilkenny capture another All-Ireland senior hurling title, this time at the second attempt.

Three weeks ago we undertook the same journey and most Kilkenny supporters seemed happy with a draw. Perhaps, we might have won the game, but no one from either county was complaining about a return trip to Dublin.

In a contest that delivered the proverbial game of two halves, Kilkenny was very much second best in the opening 35 minutes. The Cats were out-played in many of the exchanges and thoughts of the Leinster final collapse momentarily flashed through supporters’ minds.

The big surprise was the aerial dominance of Galway early on in the game. This was one area where we expected Kilkenny to hold the edge, but it was the Tribesmen who bossed the aerial exchanges throughout the first half.

As the game headed towards the interval, Galway held a commanding lead. That dominance, though, started to wane as the Tribesmen failed to deliver a knock-out blow to the Cats. 

Galway clearly lost its focus in the closing stages of the first half when they conceded a number of careless frees. Three points from Henry Shefflin were priceless at that stage as they saw Kilkenny heading for the dressing room feeling more optimistic than might have been the case.

Still, I am sure manager Brian Cody could not wait to have some stern words with his players because Galway had done most of the hurling by the interval.

That precious trio of points from Shefflin was the spark that ignited the Cats in the second half - apart that is from whatever Brian Cody had to say during the half time break.

Eroded Galway’s lead

Within 15 minutes of the restart Kilkenny had eroded the Galway lead and it did appear that the Westerners dominance was at an end.

The Kilkenny defence had finally got a firm grip on the Galway attack, but more importantly the Cats were now dominating the aerial exchanges, particularly through the imperious Brian Hogan at centre-back.

Kilkenny second half momentum was unceremoniously halted with Niall Burke’s goal which was the result of a rare and unfortunate mix-up between two defenders.

It was a lucky break for the Westerners and it once again put Kilkenny on the back foot. Suddenly the momentum was back with Galway, but apart from that goal, the Tribesmen’s attack did not have a particularly productive second half.

It has been well documented by now how influential Henry Shefflin was in the second half. My view was that he was the stand out player over the 70 minutes and his performance should be compulsory viewing for any aspiring Kilkenny hurler. He was that good!

Shefflin almost single-handedly dragged his fellow players to the cusp of victory. His work rate, bravery and determination are the reasons why we are heading back to Croke Park on Sunday.

A number of Kilkenny players will be keen to atone for indifferent displays the last day. Improved performances are essential if we are to be successful.

The defence will stay intact, but where the individual players line out will not be known until Sunday. 

Galway will want a much greater return from its attack than it got the last day. Four staring forwards and three substitutes made no impact on the scoreboard.

A repeat on Sunday and the McCarthy Cup will be heading to Kilkenny.

Galway will have spent a lot of time since the drawn game working on a plan to get a better return from its forwards and I expect we will see less aerial bombardment from its defence.

Roving attack

The biggest challenge for the Kilkenny defence is coping with the roving nature of the Galway attack. The Tribesmen are at their most menacing when moving at pace and letting the Kilkenny defence worry about who to pick up.

Kilkenny cannot afford to let the Galway attack enjoy the type of freedom they experienced in the Leinster and All-Ireland finals. There will be only one result if that happens.

It is worth noting that when Henry Shefflin was winning ball after ball in the second half the deliveries were coming at the right height for the attacker. 

Over the 70 minutes too many of Kilkenny clearances were dropping like scud missiles from the skies. It made for easy pickings for the Galway defence who opted on most occasions to break the ball to a well-placed colleague.

This is one aspect of Sunday’s final which Kilkenny needs to get right. If we get the proper deliveries into our attack, we still have the best set of forwards around to punish any opposition.

Hurler of the Year Michael Fennelly will start on Sunday but we will not know his partner until Friday night when the team is announced. Richie Hogan did not look comfortable in his midfield role the last day, but don’t be surprised if he starts there again as Fennelly’s partner.

John Tennyson has to be a strong contender also.

Richie Hogan is unquestionably one of the most talented hurlers around but he is more comfortable closer to the opposition goal.

We need a major improvement from the Kilkenny attack on Sunday in the scoring stakes and to deliver greater support to its talisman from Ballyhale.

Galway has a mobile and tight marking defence which stood up manfully to the Kilkenny challenge the last day.

They will be every bit as combative and determined in the replay, so the challenge facing Kilkenny is clear. 

Prior to the drawn tie there was much furore about the appointed referee Barry Kelly. Even though every Kilkenny supporter will quibble with the last free which he awarded to Galway, the consensus was that Kelly had a superb game.

I share that view. What we saw was a rigid application of the rule book but I know some supporters do not like this style of officialdom. 

Given the very positive response to Kelly’s performance, I was surprised that the GAA did not reappoint him for the replay. It is somewhat ironic that the new man in the middle is also from Westmeath.

Kilkenny will be very familiar with James McGrath’s refereeing style as he was the man in the middle at both this year’s League final and Leinster final.

His style is to let the game flow, but he may feel under pressure following the strict application of the rules in the drawn tie.

The Westmeath man has served a long apprenticeship and he is entitled to a shot at the biggest game of the year. Let’s hope that his presence on Sunday will go unnoticed by players, mentors and supporters.

Little hype

As we enter the final week before the replay it is hard to image such a big game is on the horizon. Maybe that is no harm as the county had lost the run of itself in recent years.

It took an uttering from Joe Canning to install a little buzz into the pre-final media coverage. I do not believe that Canning intended any slight on Henry Shefflin or J.J. Delaney but he was a little careless in his choice of words.

I am glad that the Kilkenny camp choose to ignore the Galway player’s comments (publically at least). Whether they are used behind closed doors to infuse a new determination into the players remains to be seen.

We should hope for good weather

One factor which could have a bearing on the outcome of the final is the weather. No one could have any complaints with the elements the last day, but a wet day will bring new challenges to all the players.

A number of Kilkenny players will have been very disappointed at how they performed the last day and their determination to resume normal service will be a key factor in deciding the outcome of Sunday’s replay.

Be in no doubt that Galway will improve also, but I feel that Kilkenny has the greater capacity to up its game to secure another All-Ireland title.

I predicted a narrow Kilkenny win the last day and I will stick with that forecast.