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Empire poised to strike back

It’s all working out nicely for Anthony Cunningham. Despite his side beating Kilkenny by 10 points in the Leinster final, that’s the last thing people are talking about.

Or, more precisely, the empirical evidence from that game is being disregarded due to the long-running imperial dominance of Kilkenny. So while it’s not about what Galway did to put the Cats on the backs, it’s how Kilkenny now have their backs up.

Having been chastened once, they are expected to exact revenge against a county that has so often fallen when being pursued by expectation.

Limerick got a taste of Kilkenny pain, Tipperary were fitted for concrete shoes, and the Tribe are to be routed. Or are they?

First off, we must note that Kilkenny can win because so often they’ve shown up in these games with fists swinging and arms pumping.

Yet to see them as huge favourites, as the bookies have it, ignores the empirical evidence: that Galway have this year implemented a gameplan that not only beat Kilkenny, but destroyed them.

Just as Donegal’s system makes them such a tough proposition in the other code, Galway’s picture has been painted with some of the same colours. Namely the presence of a defensive shape and solidity.

The big caveat is how Galway react if Kilkenny are first up with a goal or two.

The Tribe were quickest out of the blocks against Westmeath, Offaly and the Cats in the Leinster final, and though they went behind against Cork, they never had to react to goals.

It would be much harder to inch their way back in front of Kilkenny if the reigning champions take a mile first. In fact, it would be all but impossible to see Kilkenny losing if they got a couple of first-half goals.

In truth, it’s not about what Kilkenny do in this game, it’s all about Galway.

History has taught us that the Cats will reach a certain performance level in an All-Ireland final; a lack of previous means we don’t know what we will see from Galway.

Yes, they beat Kilkenny in front of 22,171 with little expectation, but how will they respond with 82,500 eyes peeled?

Whereas before they could go out with a chip on their shoulder because there was so little belief in them, how have they reacted to all the back-patting coming into this?

What of the endless well-wishing that can give a person no respite from thinking about the biggest game of their life?

There are so many variables for Galway, with Kilkenny there rarely are. They’ve had their hiccup this year; that’s the story, and everyone’s sticking to it.

Now it’s serious, and the under-21 semi-final may have been a portent of things to come.

One of Kilkenny’s big issues in the Leinster final was at midfield but now they have Michael Fennelly back.

Given the reigning Hurler of the Year’s influence, it’s fair to assume Andy Smith and Iarla Tannion will get less breathing room in which to suffocate the Cats.

Cillian Buckley will benefit from Fennelly’s presence and, another Fennelly, Colin, should be capable of playing the 70 minutes this time should he stay free of injury.

Aidan Fogarty was influential when he came off the bench in the Leinster final so he will require plenty of attention, while TJ Reid was outstanding against Tipperary in place of the suspended Richie Hogan, who himself was involved in both goals scored against Galway.

The point being that form is not an issue for Kilkenny and, even if we would argue that Tipperary were set up for failure for more reasons than the Tommy-Lar circus, it still took quality to turn that into an 18-point win.

To again refer back to Galway’s system, we just can’t see an implosion but the Leinster final did teach us of a Tribe vulnerability. If you shell their penalty area, there are goals to be had.

That’s how Richie Hogan and Henry Shefflin got theirs in that provincial loss, after high balls discomforted the men in maroon.

That Galway full-back line might yet win at least two All Stars but we expect to see Brian Cody/Shefflin test the true credentials of Kevin Hynes at number three.

If the Cats are their usual cute selves, they will be looking for any mismatch they can get.

With JJ Delaney fit again, Galway won’t be able to expose Kilkenny for pace in the full-back line as Noel Hickey was.

What they must do, however, is again run at the Cats. Tipperary did not do that but everything we’ve seen in 2012 suggests the Tribe will. With Cyril Donnellan fit to start this time, Galway have one of their best methods of turning Kilkenny’s defence ready.

If Galway are stupid enough to play long high ball on the Kilkenny defence as Tipp did, they will deserve an inevitable defeat. If they leave Hynes exposed on Shefflin, the same goes.

If they continue to improve on what they have done all year under Cunningham, they can win, and if it’s more Joe Show than Average Joe, we may have something very special on the way.

The problem is the ifs for a team that is in its first final. Yes the Portumna men have won All-Irelands and the under-21s have too but this is the big one, against the big one. And because so often they have been the last one standing, it’s hard to back against the black and amber machine.

That empirical evidence trumps all else. So Kilkenny by three.

 

Follow Shane Stapleton on Twitter: @shanesaint

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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