PAST games, past performances count for nothing on All-Ireland hurling final day! The deciders are one-off occasions that can be influenced by any number of variables.
Kilkenny All-Ireland winning captain of last season, Brian Hogan, has been through the experience often enough to know a thing or two about finals, and the one thing he was certain about was that players should prepare for every eventuality and expect everything and anything to unfold.
“A final tends to take on a life of its own,” the O’Loughlin Gaels defender suggested when he opened up on Sunday’s showdown against Galway. “What has gone before counts for little? A lot will be read into our semi-final performance, but we have gone into finals before following mediocre performances and that didn’t bother us.
“Likewise if we got a good win it wouldn’t bother us.”
Past performances were nothing more than a means to get to the final, the five times All-Ireland medal winner suggested. Having lost to Galway in the Leinster final it was good to get the chance to face them again, but that result wouldn’t influence the final to any great extent.
“A lot of the Galway players have been playing at the highest level for a while,” he said. “They have also played in club, minor and under-21 All-Irelands. They are well used to playing in big games. Obviously this is the biggest of them all, but they will handle the occasion.
“They are not coming into the final cold, as novices. They are all well versed in playing in finals and in front of big crowds. They won’t be fazed by it, I would imagine.”
Raised their game
Galway, he felt, have raised their game since joining the Leinster championship. It was a bit of a learning curve for them for a few years, but the overall experience has been good for Galway and Leinster hurling.
“They now have tougher matches, which will help them progress,” Brian insisted. “That is what they want. Galway in Leinster has been good for hurling. They were in the wilderness virtually on their own on in the west, much like Antrim are in the north.
“They are too big a hurling county to be left out. Something needed to be done to give them matches. Coming into Leinster has done that. It has strengthened Leinster as well.
“There was a perception, rightly or wrongly, that Leinster hurling was the weaker province. I wouldn’t agree with that. Certainly Galway coming into it has raised the bar.”
The westerners, he felt sure, could go on to get even better now that they had made the breakthrough in the province by winning their first senior title.
The Leinster champions much talked about tactics, where they post an extra man in defence, has generated a lot of debate this summer but the All-Star didn’t make much of it.
“We always try and avoid changing our game,” he said of Kilkenny’s approach to such things. “We have our style of play and we stick to it as much as possible. It is about trying to impose your game on the opposition. You control the controllable. We can’t control what Galway might throw at us.”
Kilkenny, he said, could only control themselves and what they do. Looking back on the Leinster final they didn’t do that. Galway did what they do well, really well, that day.
“It is all about getting ourselves right now, and hopefully producing our best performances on the day,” Brian insisted. “If we do that we won’t be far away.”
Hurling is instinctive game
For him the beauty of hurling, part of the appeal of it, was that it was very much an instinctive game with tactics a small factor at any time. Players had to go with their gut instinct possibly more than in most other sports.
“The best players will hurl off the cuff, and they seem to always do the right thing with the ball. It comes natural,” he suggested. “That is why hurling is regarded as one of the most skilful games around. You learn that sort of thing, instinct or whatever, from a young age.
“It is totally different from football. The game could lose some of its appeal, its beauty, if play were stifled in any way by bad rule changes. That is why I wouldn’t like to see hurling rules changed with football, because the games are very different.
“The key with hurling is you have to get to the ball first. You haven’t time to think on the ball. It is a very simple game. You can try and complicate it, but ultimately it is a simple game.”
Kilkenny have won a lot over the past decade and more, and they have developed the happy knack of winning tight games. Was winning a habit?
“Winning is a habit, absolutely,” Brian assured. “You get into a frame of mind where you win, you win and then you don’t want to lose. It drives you on. In the last 10 minutes of games if you have experience of handling the pressure in tight matches it can stand to you.
“The answer to all questions is in the result. Winning can come down to small things, a bounce of a ball, a slip by a player. There are so many variable it is hard to know what makes the difference.
Win fair share of tight matches
“Kilkenny win their fair share of tight match, and I am sure the fact they have been through such experiences on occasions in the past is no burden.”
Brian said he was a creature of habit on big match weekends. His routine for the game would start on Saturday when he would try and maintain a regular pattern to his life, down as far as eating the same food at the same time as normal.
“You have your formula, you stick to it,” was the way he put it. “Subconsciously you are telling yourself it is game time.”
You do virtually the same thing all season long for every match, he said. The body and mind almost knows what is going on, that it is match time.
“You should feel the same way when you get out of bed on the morning of the game, and then you do your Sunday routine,” he added.
On Saturday he will visit his parents, watch a bit of television and keep himself busy. He might go for a walk, but there won’t be much talk.
It will be game time….time to get into the zone.