One of the biggest games of the year — but is anybody really looking forward to it?
By JIM CARNEY
BACK IN 2009, when the Galway senior hurling team participated in the Leinster Championship for the first time — with a 5-9 to 0-17 win over Laois at O’Moore Park, Portlaoise — there was huge excitement when the follow-up fixture was made for O’Connor Park, Tullamore: Galway vs Kilkenny on the evening of Saturday, June 20. Even though it was all-ticket and was being shown live on RTE Television there was daily speculation about Tullamore’s ability to keep the attendance within the Offaly county ground’s 16,000-to-20,000 capacity. It was a very good game, won by Kilkenny 2-20 to 3-13. Galway looking east and joining Leinster appeared to be the right thing to do: right for Galway, despite that defeat; right for Leinster and right for hurling. But there hasn’t been the same excitement since.
In the following year (2010), Galway got to the Leinster final, played at Croke Park, vs Kilkenny. Galway were going for their first ever Leinster title, Kilkenny their 67th and 12th in 13 years. Kilkenny won by 1-19 to 1-12. Both sides played some great hurling, in a muted atmosphere. For many Galway followers, the novelty of playing in the Leinster Championship was already wearing off.
Last year it turned sour when Galway played poorly against Westmeath at Mullingar and were then beaten by Dublin at Tullamore, 0-19 to 2-7. In the Leinster final Kilkenny slammed Dublin 4-17 to 1-15. The attendance at Galway vs Dublin was only 11,618. It more than trebled for the Leinster final — 33,814 — but Dublin had a large support in their own city and were perceived to be a rising force, a huge threat to an ageing Kilkenny team who’d been denied an All-Ireland five-in-a-row by Tipperary in 2010.
The last time Brian Cody and Kilkenny lost in Leinster was 2004, to Wexford. From 2005 to 2009 there was no serious opposition to Kilkenny and that was one reason why Galway (and, to a much lesser extent, Antrim) were welcome on the east coast. Leinster then got a bonus, the rise of Dublin; it was conveniently brushed aside that Offaly and Wexford were going in the other direction, into decline. Who would lower the Black and Amber colours in the Leinster Championship — Galway or Dublin? This year it won’t be Dublin, not after the merciless beating Kilkenny inflicted on them at Portlaoise on June 24th, 2-21 to 0-9. It’s highly unlikely to be Galway who, although they’ve beaten Westmeath and Offaly in this campaign, conceded a total of 7-27 in those two outings.
To their credit, Galway’s combined score (10-42) showed they knew where the goalposts were, but it was ominous that a Westmeath minor, Niall O’Brien, only 17, was Man of the Match in Galway’s 5-19 to 4-12 win at Mullingar. Young O’Brien hit two goals from play and seven pointed frees that day, and the verdict on the winners’ performance was that it was defensively weak and the whole team had been taken out of their comfort zone after a bright start: 1-12 to 0-4 at half-time and 2-12 to 0-4 early in the second half.
It was the same story next time out. A 5-23 to 3-15 win over Offaly at Portlaoise on June 17th after leading early on by seven points. Two of the Offaly goals were alarmingly “soft.”
It’s even more alarming to think about how Kilkenny don’t ease off in the second half of matches they’re dominating. Contrast that with Galway “losing” the second half at Mullingar: Westmeath 4-8 Galway 4-7.
Under new management, with Anthony Cunningham taking over from John McIntyre, Galway are certain to be well drilled and highly motivated next Sunday, and no doubt they’ll do their best to match Kilkenny’s intensity but Galway haven’t been hard-hitting for over ten years.
It’s often pointed out that only Galway have beaten Kilkenny twice in the Championship since the turn into the new millennium — in two semi-finals, 2001 and 2005 — but in the two finals that followed those victories the intensity dropped against Tipperary and Cork, respectively.
Looking ahead to Sunday, it’s difficult to see Galway followers travelling to Dublin in large numbers. Iarnród Éireann have special train services on the day and the Galway Hurling Supporters Club have a bus going; all that will save on petrol and diesel but it’s a whopping €35 for a Hogan Stand or Cusack Stand ticket and €20 the Davin Stand. For parents going to the big match by car, and bringing children with them, and taking lunch and evening meals into account, the day could cost a family up to €200.
For the record, this will be the 35th Championship meeting between the counties with Kilkenny having won 26 to Galway’s 8 of the previous 34. Since Galway’s last win over Kilkenny in 2005, the Cats have beaten Galway four times by margins ranging from four to ten points.