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Tribe can run Cats down

From whistle to whistle — that’s what it will take for Galway to bring down a dynasty.

Whether they can is the great unknown leading into the All-Ireland final replay between Kilkenny and the Connacht upstarts, in the sides’ third meeting of championship 2012.

We’ll go through the variables and the what ifs but, given that the sides have already worn timber off each other twice, it’s best to first take the advice of Ireland legend Johnny Giles: go on the evidence of what we’ve seen.

To that end, we’ve witness Anthony Cunningham devise a gameplan that discomforts the Cats. We’ve seen his side take commanding leads in both games but, obdurate as ever, Kilkenny have always charged back at them.

As they have done when needed throughout the year.

Limerick gave them a chasing in the All-Ireland quarter-final in Thurles but Henry Shefflin’s goals kept them in check before they bounced the Treaty.

Tipperary somehow fumbled into the dressing rooms at half-time of the semi-final with a one-point lead but Kilkenny came out and left Croke Park smelling of napalm.

As Kilgore observed in Apocalypse Now: “The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like… victory. Someday this war’s gonna end.”

Kilkenny are yet to bring the fight to Galway from the start of a game and, you could argue, it’s only Dublin who took a shelling from the get-go in championship 2012. Even at that, a couple of missed opportunities early on psychologically impacted the Dubs.

The irony being that, early in the season, Galway’s Damien Hayes had bemoaned his own side’s inability to explode out of the traps. Inert starts had worried the roaming forward against Waterford and Cork during the league, and this in the week leading up to that 3-26 to 0-10 defeat to the Cats at Nowlan Park.

Kilkenny were beginning games at a frightening pace at that time of the year and against Dublin at the start of the championship, but they haven’t been able to continue that trend. As they would have been targeting a much bigger challenge from Dublin in the Leinster championship, did the team prepare to peak too early in the year?

Perhaps; perhaps not. They are still All-Ireland champions, after all.

Galway know they have the measure of Kilkenny though. Their problem is reminiscent of Tipperary’s back in 2009: they went in at half-time of the final knowing the game was there and suffered because of that. The ‘Oh my God, we’re actually going to win this’ thoughts in the players’ heads must have been a factor.

It may well have been coming up to half-time when Galway had built up a seven-point lead (1-9 to 0-4), but gifted Kilkenny a way back in with three needless frees. David Collins was caught for overcarrying under pressure from TJ Reid in the 33rd minute — needless. Andy Smith pulled back Brian Hogan as he careered up the field a minute later, when he should have forced the centre-back to shoot under pressure — needless.

Minute 36 and Johnny Coen was yellow-carded for a wild flake down on Colin Fennelly, when restraint may have allowed him to clear the danger — needless. Shefflin, who had moved himself out to centre-forward before the half-hour, popped over all three to make Brian Cody’s team talk that bit easier.

Not to mention reduce the size of the task Shefflin had in the second half, as he dragged his team up off their claws.

Galway’s handling of the greatest hurler of all time over the course of the 70 minutes merits discussion. In the first half, Fergal Moore almost completely nullified Shefflin in the full-forward line.

Once the Ballyhale man moved out to the number 11 position, he had much more joy on Tony Óg Regan, who also hit plenty of ball. But the point for the Tribe, particularly when you are leading the game, is that you would surely want to snuff out the biggest danger to your team. That, as we’ve seen since the last millennium gave birth to this one, is Shefflin, so it may have made sense for Moore to continue man-marking him. That’s what Kilkenny would have done.

Yes that might have taken Regan out of position but, in this age of man-marking and versatility, there should be contingency plans for all eventualities. Brian Hogan slipped into full-back on Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher in the semi-final and, partly because Tipp’s route-one tactics were so archaic, he prospered.

Given Kilkenny’s propensity for long ball, it may have worked out for Regan too (though one word of warning on the centre-back is his ball handling, as he dropped four basic catches in the final).

The burning questions from all of this is whether Moore will do a man-marking job on Shefflin this Sunday, whether he would prosper, and whether Galway’s defence would be destabilised by these tactics. One of many considerations for Cunningham, but stopping Shefflin has to be a top priority — because so many other Kilkenny forwards, perhaps with the exception of TJ Reid and Eoin Larkin to a lesser extent, misfired in the drawn game.

Richie Power improved in the second half but he really has not been himself since a knee injury earlier in the season. His use of the ball was poor before being taken off concussed against Limerick, he didn’t get the sliotar in his hands for almost a half-hour in the Leinster final, was average against Tipp, and was very quiet in the first half of the All-Ireland final.

Colin Fennelly has missed simple goal chances in his last two games — one-on-ones against Brendan Cummins and James Skehill. Great saves both but the ’keepers should not have had a chance in either case.

Larkin has flitted in and out of games since his Hurler of the Year form in the league, while Aidan Fogarty lost his spark in the drawn All-Ireland after routing the Premier.

This is both a worry for Kilkenny and a warning for Galway because if these men do fire, our man Kilgore will be enjoying his favourite smell for some time after.

The Tribe, as shown twice against Kilkenny and against Cork, also have something else in common with that Tipperary team from 2009: that struggle to perform at their top level for 70 minutes. Again, that may have something to do with seeing the finishing line, panicking, and the opposition picking up on that.

Yet, unlike that Tipp team in its first title challenge, they now know they are good enough to beat and match the Cats. Cunningham’s side have been through the build-up to an All-Ireland final and lived to tell the tale. Have dug their own grave and seen Joe Canning winch them out.

They have seen that they must continue to run at Kilkenny for 70 minutes and not revert to long ball — Tommy Walsh’s, Hogan’s and JJ Delaney’s favourite course. They must persevere with moving man-markers out of their preferred positions, even if it means key men such as Cyril Donnellan don’t get into the game as much as they would like.

Kilkenny simply need to work hard enough up front to force hasty clearances, and get their best men at their best. Hurler of the Year Michael Fennelly was outdone by Smith and too many forwards went missing.

The loss of Michael Rice was evident in the draw and it remains to be seen if Richie Hogan stays in the centre or reverts to an attacking position, where he is needed right now.

We say pish posh to anyone who says Galway have missed their chance because twice they have shown the mettle required to match the Cats.

Had they not missed three good scoring chances in a row at the start of the second half, this column would already be hibernating.

The Tribe have another chance to says nuts to the doubters, if they can run at the champs for 70 minutes.

Verdict: Galway.

 

Follow Shane Stapleton on Twitter: @shanesaint

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Shane Stapleton is the Irish Post's GAA hurling columnist. Follow Shane on Twitter @shanesaint

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