The first Sunday of September, the time when the hurling world’s attention turns to Croke Park and the All Ireland Senior Hurling final. This is the game where every aspiring kid who plays hurling dreams, hitting a ball at the back of the garden imagining that they have hit the winning goal or point in the showpiece event of the year. Let us be frank, the hurling fraternity demand an exciting, epic final. They demand that Galway show up on the day and put a performance that will seriously challenge perennial hurling aristocrats Kilkenny led by the mercurial Brian Cody. Hawkeye Sidekick looks into the crystal ball and sees where this final could be won and lost and gives his verdict on who will be walking away with Liam McCarthy this season at 5pm on Sunday evening.
This season was seen by many pundits as a potentially transitional period for the team. Several marquee departures from the panel including Henry Shefflin meant that Kilkenny foes sensed a potential gap in panel depth. The NHL season performances perhaps suggested as much as Kilkenny faltered and avoided relegation on the last day of the season. The league season did unearth gems for Brian Cody. Ger Alyward’s cameos in the league caught the eye and the young corner forward has not looked back this season with some emphatic performance none more so than his three goals against Wexford in the opening round of the Leinster championship. The league performances were skewed by the fact that the Ballyhale contingent were in club championship action at the start of the season and it was no coincidence that Kilkenny rapidly improved when the likes of Joey Holden, Michael Fennelly, Colin Fennelly and TJ Reid re-emerged in the black and amber jersey. Kilkenny have cruised through the championship this season. Wexford were no match for Cody’s men in Nowlan Park, it was a game of men against boys at times. The Leinster final was competitive for fifty minutes but Kilkenny eased their way past their All Ireland final opponents in the last quarter aided by excellent long range scoring from Reid and Larkin. The All Ireland semi-final pitted Kilkenny against Waterford, the NHL winners and new team on the block. Kilkenny did struggle to come to terms with the Waterford defensive formation but when they did, they eased away as Waterford’s young team wilted under the pressure of Richie Hogan, TJ Reid’s dominance in the forward line in the final quarter. The key theme this season has being Kilkenny’s ability to run away from opposition in the last quarter. Their appetite for work, whether it is tackling without the ball and their game management intelligence to look up and spot a better placed colleague to hit a score have being absolutely key. Kilkenny have no distinct weak links in their starting lineup. Eoin Murphy has provided enormous assurance in the goals, his distribution from puck outs cannot be faulted and marshals the full back line with unerring confidence. The full back line has had its problems this year in particular the full back position. You are always going to have problems trying to fill the massive void left by the retired JJ Delaney. Paul Murphy was tried at the position in the league but his natural game is corner kick, cue Joey Holden (Kilkenny captain) to lead by example and fill the void. Holden has not being fully tested in his defensive work in the position and Galway will look to expose the Ballyhale clubman with the likes of Jason Flynn and Joe Canning inside. Prendergast’s appearance against Waterford was good albeit Waterford only had two inside forwards all game so it was relatively easy afternoon for the Kilkenny full back line on the day. Kilkenny’s key strength has and is the half-back line. Kieran Joyce at centre back has being outstanding this season, little ball is going directly into the full back line and it is thanks in no small measure to Joyce’s dominance in the air and game management to know when to fall deep and win primary possession. Padraic Walsh inherits the jersey from his legendary brother Tommy and the Tullaroan man has being solid in the number five position. Strong aerially and his ability to solo with the ball to create opportunities for his half-forward line has caught the eye. Cillian Buckley has to be a serious contender for HOTY this season. Each performance has being more exceptional than the next. Buckley has everything, pace, power, aerial dominance, ability to take points from distance when the forward line are struggling for space. Buckley’s midfield background has helped in his wing back play and his ability to get up and down the pitch is superb. If Buckley has a similar performance today, then he has to be one of the players in contention for man of the match honors. Conor Fogarty is the unsung hero for Kilkenny. His work rate sets the example for his colleagues to follow. Fogarty’s ability to do the dirty work (win ball, mop up ball between the half back and full back line, his passing range to find players) is first class. Fogarty’s industrial work ethic allows his midfield colleague Michael Fennelly to focus on attacking from deep, His lung bursting solo runs cause opposition half back lines endless headaches. Fennelly’s game management and ability to win ball in the air provide Kilkenny with a magnificent platform to launch attacks for their forward line. Kilkenny’s forward line has being dominated by Richie Hogan and TJ Reid. Both players have being immense during the road to the championship. Imperious in all facets of game, they have carried the forward line predominantly on their backs albeit Ger Alyward has being prominent at times as well with a serious goal threat inside. The HOTY award is a toss up between Hogan and Reid if Kilkenny prevail on Sunday such has being their impact to the championship this season. You would think from my review that Galway only have to watch both these players but the rest of the forward line given time and space could also destroy the Westerners’ dream of Liam McCarthy. Colin Fennelly, Eoin Larkin and Walter Walsh potentially have massive roles on Sunday. Walsh’s imposing height advantage makes him a candidate to be deployed in the Galway full back line early doors to create an early goal chance. Colin Fennelly’s season has being mixed but his speed and work rate has caught the eye. Larkin has chipped in with a couple of scores each game. His ability to hit points from long distance is a big asset for Kilkenny. If Galway happen to nullify some of the forward line threats of Kilkenny, then Cody can call on the likes of Richie and John Power to the party to create mismatches in the Galway defense. Kilkenny enter this contest with the experience of winning at this time of year. Several marquee players may have departed stage left but the conveyor belt of talent and integration into a winning team culture means that Kilkenny have not missed a beat this year. An awesome performance from Galway is required on Sunday as this Kilkenny team do not do stage fright.
I work and based in Galway. The hype and excitement around Galway city since the epic one point win over Tipperary three weeks ago has being truly a pleasure to watch. There is a feel good factor around the town, one buoyed by the Galway team’s ability to get up off the canvas three times in that semi-final performance. Seamus Callanan was unmarkable on the day and any of those three goals would on another day killed Galway off but this team showed massive heart and determination to win the contest from that position. Galway goalkeeper position has being a contentious one over the years. Several players such as Skehill, Flannery have staked their name to the position in recent years but Colm Callanan has flat out nailed the position this year. The Kinvara’s keeper performance against Tipperary with several exceptional saves (even though three goals went past him) has seen him go ahead in the All Star award goalkeeper race. His distribution from puck-outs to Cathal Mannion and Johnny Glynn has being excellent this year. His shot stopping attempt was there for all to see in the Tipperary semi-final. Numerous discussion has ensued on how is best to play in the full back position? It is a position which was exposed massively by Tipperary in the semi-final. Seamus Callanan scored 3-9 in the contest and all three goals exploited space inside. I do not blame Padraic Mannion for it as Galway management should have had a player to help the vanquished full back in the second half. Johnny Coen or a Daithi Burke could be deployed as a sweeper on Sunday to potentially offset this problem. Hanbury is probably the most suited to the full back position but he will be given a stern examination from potentially TJ Reid or Walter Walsh early doors. It is a line which has excelled on occasions this season but massive questions need to be answered from each player in the Galway full back line on Sunday for Galway to have a serious chance of final success. The Galway half-back line has being solid this season. Aidan Harte has being a revelation in the wing back position. His transformation to the position from midfield has enabled Anthony Cunningham to deploy Andy Smyth further up the pitch. Iarla Tannian has made the centre back position his own this year. His physical style of play has resulted in dominant performances but questions on his game management and positioning were posed during the Tipperary and Kilkenny games where both teams dragged the Ardrahan man out of position and exploited the move by creating scoring opportunities. Daithi Burke has the standout performer in this half back line. His reputation for being an extremely tight marker was further emphasized by an excellent display against Bonnar Maher in the semi-final. Burke may be required to perform a man marking job on either Reid or Hogan on Sunday. Galway’s midfield pairing of Andy Smyth and David Burke provides the speed, work rate and determination to seriously challenge Kilkenny. Smyth’s all action lung bursting work rate style was too much for James Woodlock and Shane McGrath in the semi-final win. David Burke’s return is a massive addition to Galway. The Conor Fogarty of Galway, the St Thomas talisman executes the basics superbly and his defensive work to distribute ball to the likes of Mannion and Canning were pivotal in the Tipperary match. The Galway forward line has all the attributes required to pose massive problems for Kilkenny. Glynn, Donnellan and Whelan are extremely strong under the high ball and are willing to take on defenses with lung bursting runs. Glynn has being the unexpected bonus for Galway this season. His ability as a primary ball winner on the forty has allowed Joe Canning to focus on making runs off the Ardrahan player to create scoring opportunities. Cyril Donnellan is as imposing a half forward than there is anywhere in the country. The Padraic Pearses man is always guaranteed to score a couple of points from play albeit he is also prone to taking the ridiculous long range effort from an impossible angle which needs to be cut out on Sunday. Cathal Mannion, Jason Flynn and Joe Canning are the keys to Galway’s potential success on Sunday. Mannion and Flynn were given ample space and time from Tipperary to hit scores, not sure if Kilkenny will be as charitable. Both players process excellent point taking ability from distance and have an eye for goal. Canning will perform on Sunday. His season so far has being mixed, prominent on the ball, excellent ball distribution but his unerring scoring accuracy has come under scrutiny. I am in no doubt that Canning will give a stellar performance on Sunday. Galway have the physique, hurling ability to serious challenge for final honors.
This game is a close one to call. I think the game is going to be decided by whatever team can expose the other’s full back line the most. If there is a weak point in both teams, the full back line potentially would be it. Both teams may operate a sweeper to offset the weakness. Galway need to score at least three goals to win this final. Galway need a top performance from each player on the pitch on Sunday. Any player who flops will be unceremoniously exposed, ask any Limerick or Waterford hurling fan about Kilkenny’s ability to expose weak points in finals. I think Kilkenny have to be favorites here, there are a lot of questions to be answered from Galway defensively on Sunday. Galway have a chance but their full back line is a serious concern. Galway have to contend with potentially three to four Kilkenny forward match winners compared to the semi-final when only Seamus Callanan from Tipperary came to the party. It would be great for hurling if Galway did win but a lot of thinks need to go right for Galway on the day. Kilkenny do not do stage fright on finals so it is all on Galway. Kilkenny after a titanic battle to prevail by four or five points in the last ten minutes. Hope to be proved wrong.