Three weeks ago we thought (at one stage) that the great journey undertaken by our senior hurlers might be reaching the end of its fantastic voyage. Well at least for this year!
But as we left Croke Park on the 9th September the pendulum swung back towards Kilkenny. Victory in the replay was not just memorable, it was also emphatic, writes Nickey Brennan.
It was inevitable that at some stage Kilkenny would secure a title via the back-door. But not for one moment does it devalue the 34th title won by the county.
Everyone has an opinion as to how the Cats finally overcame Galway at the third time of asking. For this writer the title was secured because Kilkenny went back to basics.
I always felt that the Leinster Final defeat to Galway was a once off. History has shown that Kilkenny occasionally delivers a ‘howler’ and more often than not it is Galway dishing out the punishment.
Shefflin got Cats the draw
It may have been Galway that eventually drew the first game, but be in no doubt that it was an outrageously brilliant individual display from Henry Shefflin that ensured we travelled back to Croke Park for a replay.
Galway dictated the flow of that game with a tactical formation that caused Kilkenny lots of problems. It was, in many ways, taken from the Gaelic football manual which Anthony Cunningham had used over the past couple of years.
To Cunningham’s credit his tactical astuteness worked well in the first two games against the Cats. It was, therefore, understandable that he would hope for a similar performance in the replay.
But by last Sunday week Brian Cody and his fellow selectors had figured out how to crack the Galway code.
The difference with Kilkenny’s performance in the replay and the earlier two clashes was, in reality, very simple. Kilkenny, as I have stressed, went back to basics and the players rolled back the clock to deliver the type of display for which they are renowned.
As soon as the players ran on to the pitch one sensed a greater confidence in each one and the handling of the ball in the warm-ups was more assured than three weeks earlier.
From the throw-in we knew this was a different Kilkenny side and not just in the composition of the team. The Cats brought intensity and a work ethic to their play which was of a much higher calibre than we witnessed in the drawn game.
The defence stuck to a solid formation and was not drawn out of position, a tactic which Galway exploited the last day.
Kilkenny got an early grip at midfield and this played an important part in the team’s dominance. But it was the step up in the performance of the Kilkenny attack which was the key to capturing the 34th title.
Galway defenders were surrounded and hounded into submission time after time. Kilkenny players chased opponents, often in what seemed hopeless situations, to deprive an opponent of a clearance or possession.
That is the sort of work ethic and grafting that wins All-Ireland titles. Every Kilkenny player was prepared to leave all his energy on the pitch with a willing colleague ready on the sideline to pick up the baton, if required.
By changing the team for the replay the Kilkenny selectors were confirming that a different approach was being taken. It did not take long for Kilkenny supporters to see that much of Kilkenny’s play was different and for the better.
I heard many Galway followers point to that five minute second half spell that, in their view, changed the course of the game. Had matters gone Galway’s way at that time it would have made for a tighter finish, but it would not have changed the result.
The concession of the three goals, two of which fall into the soft variety, was the only disappointing aspect of Kilkenny play. Those goals ultimately gave a flattering look to the Galway score line.
The Westerners gave it their best shot in the replay, but they finally came up against the immoveable force that is Kilkenny. On this occasion their tactical formation was torn apart by a Kilkenny side which knew it had underperformed three weeks earlier.
The players also knew that only for their ace talisman, Henry Shefflin, there would have been no replay. They owed the Ballyhale man for his display in the drawn game and duly paid their debt.
This has, undoubtedly, been a year of progress by Galway. Overdue championship silverware (albeit not the trophy they wanted) was secured and that should leave the players with higher ambitions in 2013.
But Anthony Cunningham and his selection colleagues have much to ponder over the coming months.
They need to rethink their tactics and principally how to get more out of their own talisman Joe Canning.
During Brian Cody’s long and successful reign as manager his ability to integrate new players into the team in a seamless fashion has been his hallmark.
Three debutants last year and two this year is a significant change over such a short period.
Anthony Cunningham must hope that his talent spotting before next year’s championship delivers a few new players who might make the difference in 2013.
As for Kilkenny, 2013 will set new ambitions. Another shot at three in-a-row; ten of the best for Henry and Noel and the chance to join the club of nine by Tommy and J.J.
No sooner has the dust settled on the 2012 campaign than our though drift towards 2013 and the prospects of a 35th title. We now know that our first engagement will be against Offaly.
It’s not greed but rather attitude that drives Kilkenny team management, players and supporters alike to remain ambitious for more success.