Shane Stapleton: History tells us what Galway need in order to overcome the Kilkenny juggernaut

Shane Stapleton on a momunental task for the Tribesmen in the Leinster hurling final

Galway, Kilkenny

Galway's Fergal Moore dejected at the final whistle ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Assuming the prerequisites of skill, pace and athleticism, you can’t escape the crucial Spartan mentality needed to beat Kilkenny: come home with your shield, or on it.

This July date won’t be all ice cream and sunscreen, it’ll be blisters and bodies on the line. Dublin weren’t prepared to do that for 70 minutes against the Cats in the Leinster semi, and nothing illustrated the point more than the victors winning 74% of the contested balls after the interval.

That helped turn a one-point half-time lead into a cushion of 12, and removed all hope of Ger Cunningham’s side saving face, never mind winning. Of course, a haul of 16 points was never going to be enough either, and the record books tell Galway boss Michael Donoghue that Kilkenny have averaged 25.8 points in their 15 provincial finals under Brian Cody.

Yes, this is hurling and high-scoring is commonplace (well it was before sweepers stuck their brooms in), but only four teams have achieved that tally against the Marble men under this boss. Tipperary in the 2010 All-Ireland final and otherwise, encouragingly for the Tribe, it was the maroons en route to victory in 2005 and 2012, and when drawing in 2014.

 

 Galway’s manager Michael Donoghue and manager Brian Cody ©INPHO/James Crombie

With demanding fans, "what have you done for me lately?" is never too far away and you have to go back to 2012 for the most recent Tribal success. Whether Kilkenny were caught napping in that 2-21 to 2-11 Leinster final defeat, or whether Galway simply were on fire, is hard to say definitively. Whatever the reason, the Tribe won three-quarters of the 50-50s that day, subverting the usual trend in games involving the Cats.

We mentioned Dublin’s inability to score on June 11th. Well, in 2012 the black and amber didn’t even get a shot off from play inside a half hour and lost each of the first 14 puckouts. For Donoghue’s side to upset both the odds and Cody’s apple cart, they must repeat the dose, and that begins by fighting with your heart and hurling with your head.

The latter means identifying and profiting from mismatches. Full-back Joey Holden supposedly is always there for the taking, yet he is a reigning All-Ireland winning All Star captain. Still, suspicion remains that the Ballyhale man could leak scores if troubleshooter Paul Murphy is drawn away from the square and then the right ball goes into, say, Joe Canning.

Of course, every team thinks this way and yet it rarely comes off. Canning scored a ridiculous goal in last year’s Leinster final but the well mostly ran dry afterwards, and Galway’s challenge fell asunder. Just as it did in the second half of what turned into a grimly inevitable All-Ireland final last September. We’ve all seen car-crash footage with the frame-rate slowed down, but this was a 35-minute presentation.

 

 Kilkenny’s Joey Holden ©INPHO/James Crombie

Kilkenny retreated into defence, Galway ignored the time and space they had to work the ball out from the back, and deserved to be punished for hitting the sliotar into hopeless situations. When you have good possession, you must not turn it into 50-50 ball, not against the striped men.

Speaking privately with one of the Dublin players after the recent defeat to Kilkenny, what he noted was hardly a new development: their physical stature. Not only that, but the abundance of size across the field. You bend down to rise a ball and when you look up, you need to arch your neck some more just to see who is casting the cold shadow. Michael Fennelly, his brother Colin, Wally Walsh, TJ Reid, the list goes on.

Given the force and relentless nature of the Kilkenny tackling — legally, we might add — it is commonplace to wake up from such an occasion with bruising across your arms. So that’s the rock that the Dubs again perished on, and what Galway are sailing towards once more.

You could identify an issue with Dublin where arguably half of their best forward line was unavailable for the Cats clash. Danny Sutcliffe and Colm Cronin both left the panel while Mark Schutte wasn’t fit, so those were blows. Galway are without Johnny Glynn this year and while we can’t discount his absence, it’s shortcomings in other areas that are more worrying.

During Anthony Cunningham’s four years in charge, he never found natural midfielders to hold down the 65s. Davy Burke, Andy Smith, Iarla Tannian and Joseph Cooney often played there, but they’re all naturally backs or forwards. During the 2015 All-Ireland final, Greg Lally (back) and eventually Cathal Mannion (forward) tried their hand in that zone to little effect. Davy Glennon (forward) has taken up the midfield reins with Burke, and that has to be a concern against Michael Fennelly and Conor Fogarty (a converted back, though to great effect).

Just as there aren’t for Mayo footballers after their managerial heave, there can be no excuses for Galway in 2016. The day after last September’s loss, one player wrote on Facebook a message to the following effect: great people and great acts, but when a clown is running the circus you have no chance.

The Tribe weren’t a million miles off Kilkenny in 2015 so they should truly fancy themselves if Donoghue has cultivated a positive environment. In terms of raw materials, everything is in place. They have a goalkeeper who won’t gift scores to Kilkenny as Dublin did, Canning who needs no billing, Niall Burke who has fired bullets into the Cats before, and the physicality to equally bruise the oppressive champions.

 

 Galway’s Niall Burke ©INPHO/James Crombie

What they don’t have is TJ Reid, a man who held the Dubs underwater and who decisively hit 1-9, 1-7, 1-7 and 1-9 in each of his four championship games in 2015. No matter what starting team is named, Richie Hogan should feature and that’s further trouble for the Tribe.

Eoin Larkin was quiet the last day but he seems to retain a special ire for Galway. Cast your thoughts back to how decisive his performances were in provincial and All-Ireland finals last year. He is the only Kilkenny captain ever to lose a Leinster final under Cody, which must have stung, so don’t be surprised if he has now overcome his rustiness from an army tour of duty.

He is one of six forwards who won’t wait for the ball but go find it, and it’s the reason you so regularly see shirt numbers 10 to 15 inside the Kilkenny ’65. As if Cody is saying: don’t come back in here saying you couldn’t get into the game, make sure you do.

Galway have to ensure they use the space, wherever it’s left, and make sure they’re not turned over for scores on ten occasions as Dublin were. Let long balls drop dangerously inside the Kilkenny ’21 or grimace as half-backs Padraig Walsh, Kieran Joyce and Cillian Buckley snap, snappity, snap your silly clearances all afternoon.

History tells us that Galway will give it a go but they need to get a big headstart to hold on. If Kilkenny are close at half-time, prepare for their usual running start to the second half. History says Galway need to put up 26 points, or keep Kilkenny goalless. With or on their shields, it’s hard to imagine either scenario leading to a Tribal win.