As KILKENNY people head off to Croke Park on Sunday morning, the rest of the country (aside from Galway, of course) will view the black and ambers latest All-Ireland attempt with a mixture of envy and admiration.
For Galway it will be a very serious day at the office - one that is long overdue. How it has taken so long for the Tribesmen to reappear in an All-Ireland final is baffling given the county’s array of hurling talent?
Without doubt, these are extraordinary times for followers of Gaelic games in Kilkenny. Life may be tough for many in the county, but the excitement of another September Sunday in Croke Park will lift the gloom for a little while at least.
Travelling to Dublin on the second Sunday in September has almost become an annual ritual for Kilkenny supporters and over the past decade and a half those journeys have been hugely rewarding.
Last Sunday week I met a number of people from Ulster who were attending the Donegal versus Cork game and they all wanted to talk about Kilkenny hurling and the upcoming All-Ireland final.
It is amazing how GAA folk from non-traditional hurling counties almost assume that the Kilkenny team that will line out on Sunday is the same group of players throughout that glorious period.
They seem surprised when I informed them that the Kilkenny team has gradually evolved over the years with new players coming on board on a regular basis. Three players started in their first All-Ireland final in 2011.
Admiration and envy
At least two more players, possibly three, will start their first All-Ireland final on Sunday. In 12 months around one third of the team will have changed.
Looking at the current crop of under-21 players one could reasonably assume that some of these young men are not too far away from moving on to the senior ranks.
As I looked at my three friends from Ulster in the foyer of the Croke Park Hotel their demeanour portrayed a mixture of that admiration and envy I mentioned earlier.
Hurling is not their first sport, but Kilkenny’s exploits draws them to the game like a magnet, even if it is only on the TV in their sitting room. The great thing about modern sport is that for all its perceived certainty, there remains lots of uncertainty.
That’s why, despite all the hype surrounding Kilkenny emphatic victory over Tipperary in the recent semi-final, the Cats face a mighty challenge from Galway in Croke Park.
The reason for this cautious approach is not just down to Galway’s impressive showing in the Leinster final, but a genuine belief that the Westerners have matured impressively this year, with the overall balance in the side delivering confident performances.
It has taken Galway far more years than anyone expected to return to Croke Park on All-Ireland final Sunday. The intervening period has been frustrating for every Galway supporter and for hurling’s sake it is great to see a new side on the pitch on hurling’s biggest day.
Two less than assured performances against Westmeath and Offaly did not inspire any great confidence in the Westerners in the early rounds of the championship.
But if those two displays appeared a little lethargic, albeit with resounding victories, nothing prepared Kilkenny supporters for the tsunami which was about to hit the Cats in the Leinster final.
The season 2012 was expected to be the one when Dublin would finally discard its ‘almost’ tag in the championship and move on further from its impressive showing in 2011.
The Cats were well warned and it is fair to say that a Kilkenny side had never prepared as diligently as this year for an opening round Leinster championship tie.
It is not in Kilkenny’s nature to enter any game with a lack of focus, but I just wonder was the side’s preparation for the Dublin game at the heart of a miserable opening half against Galway in the Leinster final?
I do not for one moment believe that Kilkenny underestimated the Tribesmen, but there had to be some rational explanation for Kilkenny’s lethargy in the first half.
There is no doubt that Galway was superb that afternoon in Croke Park. Kilkenny’s performance may have improved after the break, but none of us should dismiss the level of confidence which the Galway players will have gained from their first provincial success in the east.
The one certainty on Sunday is that Kilkenny’s focus will be spot on. Unlike the Leinster final, the reigning champions will have a game plan to match anything Galway might throw at them.
It will be an intriguing game because the big question is whether Galway will attempt to replicate its Leinster final tactics. A packed defence with high-octane mobility had Kilkenny in all sorts of bother for the opening 20 minutes.
Despite the Cats eventually getting to grips with its opponents, the widening gap could not be bridged. This time Kilkenny will be ready for those tactics, but will Galway return to the scene of its best triumph in years and play the same deck of cards?
Galway manager Anthony Cunningham unashamedly dipped into his repertoire of football tactics to plot the downfall of Kilkenny in Leinster. Chief among these is a tight marking defence in which midfielders or even attackers defend as necessary to crowd-out the path to goal.
That, of course, leaves a couple of attackers at the other end of the field and this is where the explosive pace of the Galway players had Kilkenny in trouble early on. The tactic also left Kilkenny defenders unsure as to who to mark at times.
That uncertainty resulted in a plethora of Galway scores, leaving Kilkenny with a mountain to climb in the second half.
It was noticeable against Cork that Galway also used a packed defence, but the Leesiders made poor use of the clearances that landed around the middle of the pitch.
If Galway deploys the same tactics on Sunday it may well block the path to goal for Kilkenny, but no team is better equipped than the Cats to pop over the points from all angles and distances.
This will be a game where Kilkenny’s ability to pressurise its opponents all over the pitch will be key. That means constant harassing, legitimately of course, of every Galway player at every opportunity. No team does the pressure game as well as Kilkenny.
I was very surprised to see the spotlight fall so glaringly on referee Barry Kelly in the run up to the final. Kelly is the most experienced official in the game and he needs no one to tell him how to handle matters. He will be firm and fair with both sides.
In fairness to Kilkenny and Galway I do not expect any of the shenanigans which we saw against Tipperary to emerge. Galway knows better than to raise the dander of its opponents and hand the reigning champions an immediate advantage.
While Kilkenny cannot ignore whatever tactics that Galway will bring to the final, the Cats will have their own tactics firmly fine tuned.
The westerners are astute enough to know that they will face a very different Kilkenny this time; with some personnel changes from their last encounter, but more especially a very different attitude and focus.
Game won’t be comfortable
The game may not be comfortable for Kilkenny for long periods, but I expect the experience in the team which has been battle-hardened over many seasons, plus the fresh and eager enthusiasm of the younger crop of player, to shine through in the end and deliver another magical day for Kilkenny. hurling.
This time last week Kilkenny had three All-Ireland titles in its sight. That’s now down to two following Saturday’s intermediate final loss to Tipperary.
A gallant second half comeback came up short against our neighbours. I will cover that game and the inter-county intermediate later. championship campaign in more detail in the coming weeks.v