Kilkenny V Galway: This Galway team must be approached with extreme caution

“We want to get the right ball to players in the right position,” said Tom Helebert, one of the Galway selectors, at the county’s All-Ireland media night last week, “and then to make good decisions when they’re on the ball.”

“We want to get the right ball to players in the right position,” said Tom Helebert, one of the Galway selectors, at the county’s All-Ireland media night last week, “and then to make good decisions when they’re on the ball.”

As insights go into a team’s philosophy it may not have been the most forensically revelatory, but as a general summation of how Galway have gone about their business this summer it was inarguably accurate, writes Enda McEvoy.

Time and again they’ve got the right ball to the right man in the right place. Time and again, albeit not every time, that man has made the correct decision.

It’s why Galway are the Leinster champions. It’s why they beat Cork with a degree of comfort in the All Ireland semi-final.

And it’s why they’re opponents to be treated with extreme caution next Sunday. Volatile substance: handle with care.

Will Anthony Cunningham’s men come within an ass’s roar of reproducing their Croke Park form of July 8? In a way it’s a redundant question. Kilkenny have to take it that they will and to plan accordingly.

Didn’t see Galway coming

Of this much we can be sure. Brian Cody won’t be viewing the challenge in any other terms.

After all, Kilkenny have been beaten more often in the championship arena on his watch by Galway than by any other county. One suspects that on those nights out in Sheestown when the great man doesn’t fall asleep quickly, it’s not the glow of the eight All Irelands won that detains him but the needle-prick of the matches lost to Galway. The All Ireland semi-finals of 2001 and ’05 and this year’s provincial decider.

Whether Kilkenny had funnelled all their focus and energies into the Dublin game two weeks earlier and so had nothing left in the tank – mentally more so than physically - for the Leinster final is irrelevant at this stage. The record shows that they didn’t see Galway coming and that if anything they were fortunate to lose by only ten points.

It was inevitable that they’d be caught by Galway some day; Kilkenny supporters had been saying exactly that for years. It was probably inevitable that that day would be the day we least expected it. “And you all know, security is mortals’ chiefest enemy,” to quote the Bard, who wrote plenty about reigning monarchs being deposed.

Cody’s outfit ask more questions of their opponents than any other team in the history of the sport. Galway are only the second team in the last six years to answer them correctly and then set questions of their own that had the Black and Amber stumped.

They cleaned out the Kilkenny midfield and half-forward line in the air, employed Damien Hayes as a third midfielder in an attacking rather than a defensive capacity and moved the ball quickly and with precision into the danger area for the forwards to run onto.

It would have been so typically Galwayesque of them to flop next time out against Cork. Yet in the All Ireland semi-final Cunningham’s charges, coming off their Croke Park high, did what they hadn’t done not just in years but in decades. They won a big championship match despite playing badly, a minor art form in itself - and incidentally did so without the services of Cyril Donnellan, who’d hit five points from play in the Leinster final.

Same old Galway? Not this time.

Watch for seventh defender

Two months ago Kilkenny were unable to get the sliotar past the Galway half-back line. A sneak preview of an additional obstacle they may be required to face on September 9 was provided in the All Ireland under-21 semi-final at Semple Stadium last Saturday week when Johnny Coen was deployed as a seventh defender in the first half, even when Galway had the wind and were thus compelled to attack. The Galway under-21 management team is the same as the county’s senior management team. Do the math, as they say in the States.

What’s more, the westerners – as was seen in the Leinster final – are considerably better in the air than they were in recent seasons. In the same way that Kilkenny ruled the skies against Tipperary last month, so Galway were aerially dominant against Cork a week earlier.

Consider this for a statistic. Of Cork’s 19 puckouts in the second half, Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s team won only one – yes, one – they went long down the centre with. Everything else was gobbled up or batted away to safety by the Galway defence. It was only when Anthony Nash went short to one of his defenders or wide to midfield with his puckouts that Cork had a base from which to build.

Anthony Cunningham, Tom Helebert and Mattie Kenny have invested substantial time and care on the coaching field in how their defenders should approach a dropping ball. It showed against Kilkenny and it showed against Cork. And how.

If Tony Óg Regan et al can’t catch the sliotar on Sunday they’ll bat it away. Winning it themselves will be less of a priority than preventing Kilkenny winning it.

And if the underdogs succeed in building an early lead, the MacCarthy Cup holders will have it all to do.

Against Kilkenny and Cork, Galway pulled out a trick from the Portumna playbook of a few years back. Having compiled an advantage, they protected it by defending in depth.

Midfielders back into defence, most of the forwards back to midfield and erect the barrier there. “Ha – if you’re so good, let’s see you try and play through that!”

It may not be pretty but it’s effective. The difference for Kilkenny this time around being, of course, that they can’t say they haven’t seen Galway coming.

If they end up chasing the game once more, toiling to pick a way through a massed maroon defence, it’ll be nobody’s fault but their own. Fool me once, etc.

But the All Ireland champions are in a different place now. Although they wobbled in the first half against Limerick, they turned a corner on the resumption.

Out of deference to such pillars of Kilkenny society as Philip O’Neill, Philip Tierney, Jim Fogarty, Joe Hayes, John Gunn, Paul O’Donoghue, John Sheehy, Colm Larkin, Joe Hickey and the many other sons of Slievenamon, we’ll draw a discreet veil over what happened next time out. Suffice it to say that Kilkenny are back in the groove and have momentum with them.

But there are caveats. A number of caveats.

Richie Power and Eoin Larkin, for instance, have not recovered their flying, subsequently mislaid, form of springtime. This would be a good time to start.

David Herity did not distinguish himself in the semi-final, what with the early slip that Noel McGrath nearly punished but for Paul Murphy’s intervention and the subsequent slip that Lar Corbett and Pa Bourke (itals) did (close itals) punish. It goes without saying that Herity cannot afford any more giddiness next Sunday.

On the other hand, if he’s picked to start one would have few fears for Cillian Buckley, who hurls with a rare intelligence for a youngster. In the closing stages of the under-21 game against Galway he hit a short pass under the New Stand to Pádraig Walsh that didn’t quite come off. Thing was, if the execution was slightly askew, the intention was commendable. That was the important part of it.

And Buckley will only have to play his position if Michael Fennelly, who has become Kilkenny’s most important player, is on song. It is no coincidence that the county’s season took a turn for the better the moment Fennelly returned against Limerick.

For last season’s Hurler of the Year is more than merely a midfielder. He adds drive to the attack when he thrusts forward, he acts as a seventh defender when he drops back and he’s always looking for the ball.

All of that said, Kilkenny will have to win the game with the XV that takes the field, or close enough. There are no All Stars on the bench. This is not 2008-09 any more.

And if Galway continue to get the right ball to players in the right position, who says lightning can’t strike a second time?

Enda McEvoy is a columnist with the Irish Examiner