Four weeks and 70 minutes away from the Liam MacCarthy Cup
By JIM CARNEY
Galway 0-22 Cork . 0-17
ONE TO GO … the big one!
Another much prized scalp has been claimed by Galway hurlers. Cork may not be the mighty Championship force they once were — winning 30 All-Ireland S.H.C. titles — but they’ll always command massive respect and be regarded as one of hurling’s superpowers.
After beating the reigning champions Kilkenny in the Leinster final it was a different kind of task that faced Galway at Croke Park last Sunday, but they rose to the challenge magnificently and with a convincing five-point victory they made it a third successive Championship triumph over counties that have won the Liam MacCarthy Cup in Galway’s barren 24-year period. Offaly, Kilkenny and Cork have all been put to the sword this season by Anthony Cunningham’s emerging force from the West.
That is superb, thrilling progress but there’s an even bigger job to be done in four weeks’ time, in the All-Ireland final on September 9th. For, through the “back door” the title-holders Kilkenny have nursed the wounds opened by that Galway sword, regrouped and recovered, and they’ve come through the quarter-finals with a battling win over Limerick to qualify for next Sunday’s big clash with their great rivals Tipperary in the second of the semi-finals.
Tipp, too, have made steady progress since the huge disappointment of losing last year’s All-Ireland final to the Black and Amber and if Sunday’s battle is the classic we all hope it’ll be, the winner will be a hot favourite to win the final.
That’ll suit Galway’s needs at this stage. A relatively low profile will help the players and their three-man management team of Anthony Cunningham, Tom Helebert and Mattie Kenny. There is more than enough pressure in winning the Leinster Championship and then facing Cork, although Galway may feel that the big guns bring out the best in them. Maybe they like the old saying: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall!”
Even allowing for the caution that must accompany the build-up to the final, it’s a fantastic achievement: Galway have done brilliantly in their last two Championship tests, playing sparkling, delightfully skilful, fast hurling. Every player’s first touch has been confident and sharp; the teamwork has been exemplary and so impressive that it’s been much talked about in the national media and among hurling enthusiasts all over the country. And at the same time Galway’s wins over Kilkenny and Offaly have also been memorable for high-class individual excellence: Joe Canning, Damien Hayes, Tony Óg Regan and Johnny Coen both days; Fergal Moore and Niall Donoghue the last day, while all the others worked hard and they all wore the Maroon and White with pride, passion and notable distinction — the best we’ve seen since the famous 5-18 to 4-18 win over Kilkenny in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final.
Mention of that game reminds us, of course, that it was won by a Galway team who couldn’t sustain their collective effort to clinch the first title since 1988. There is, sadly, the fear that it could happen again this year. Cork didn’t provide good enough opposition last Sunday to really test Galway’s credentials, to show that what they produced in the Leinster final could be produced again under intense pressure. That was Cork’s big problem in this semi-final; they didn’t really put Galway under pressure. They didn’t even make an all-out effort to boss the match, to impose themselves; they were surprisingly timid and lack-lustre, especially in the middle third of the pitch.
Admittedly, many of Cork’s brightest talents are young and inexperienced. Unquestionably, they’ll know Croke Park better next time they play there, but it is unthinkable that Galway will have as much freedom to express themselves when it comes to Kilkenny or Tipperary in the final.
It was also disappointing that the game failed to produce a goal. Indeed, the Galway goalkeeper had no real save to make and the Cork custodian had to make only one good stop. In the past few days everybody’s been raving about the brilliance of the Galway backs, individually and as a unit, but they haven’t been fully tested in this Championship by any of the four counties they’ve beaten: Westmeath, Offaly, Kilkenny and Cork.
The same could be said about midfield. To their credit, Iarla Tannian and Andy Smith have done very well and worked very hard, but their most challenging, most accomplished opponents are up ahead of them, no matter whether they’ll be wearing Black and Amber or Blue and Gold.
IT was a strange game last Sunday. When you look back at it now, either on a dvd or in your mind, it’s hard to credit that Galway were led by two points late in the first half by a team who ended up with four of their starting forwards taken off by Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Ger Cunningham, Seánie McGrath, John Crowley and Kieran Kingston. Or that the contest was level at half-time, 0-11 apiece, and that it wasn’t until injury-time at the end of the game that Galway scored the point which gave them a winning margin of five.
In the second half, in particular, it was gripping stuff to watch, an absorbing encounter, but it wasn’t quality hurling. Earlier, both sides had bad wides from good positions, a few of those wides hit by players with no man-marking to distract them. In the second half the game deteriorated as it became more and more tactical — once or twice my mind wandered and I found myself wondering if Jim McGuinness and the Donegal footballers were having an influence on how hurling is changing, too.
For all the praise that we again heap on Joe Canning, and the man is awesome, no doubt about that, he had only one shot for a goal in this game — from a free which wasn’t a goal opportunity at all. It ended, as it simply had to end, in an easy point missed.
Both sets of backs came out of the game with immense credit, but I think that’s a bad sign. It’s always a bad sign when you’re not happy to be talking about the forwards.
Having said all that, Galway are now in an exciting place. If you’re in an All-Ireland final, you can win it.
This is a supremely fit, highly motivated, well managed Galway team: fine young men, sensible, dedicated, hugely committed and it is a privilege to sit back and see what they’re talented enough to do in the Maroon and White cause.
But are they good enough to go all the way? That’s a question we cannot answer here. Only time will tell.
We may have a better idea, one way or another, by next Sunday evening. What if Kilkenny vs Tipperary isn’t a classic? The door could open wide for Galway in that scenario.
The prospects are intriguing, so exciting that we can hardly wait for Sunday. After that we’ll find it twice as hard to wait for September 9th.
Galway: J. Skehill; F. Moore, captain, K. Hynes, J. Coen; D. Collins, T. Regan, N. Donoghue; I. Tannian, A. Smith (0-1); N. Burke (0-2), D. Burke (0-2), J. Regan (0-2); J. Canning (0-11, five frees, two 65s), D. Hayes (0-4), C. Cooney. Subs., D. Glennon, for Cooney, 54 mins; C. Donnellan, for J. Regan, 62 mins; J. Glynn, for N. Burke, 66 mins; J. Cooney, for D. Burke, 72 mins.
Cork: A. Nash (0-1, free); S. O’Neill, S. McDonnell, B. Murphy; T. Kenny, E. Cadogan, S. Ó hAilpín; L. McLoughlin, P. Cronin (0-1); C. McCarthy (0-1), J. Coughlan (0-1), C. Lehane; P. O’Sullivan (0-3), L O’Farrell (0-1), P. Horgan, captain (0-7, six frees). Subs., C. Naughton (0-1), for C. McCarthy, half-time; D. Sweetnam (0-1), for Lehane, 46 mins; S. Moylan, for O’Farrell, 51 mins; N. McCarthy, for Coughlan, 55 mins; D. Kearney, for McLoughlin, 68 mins.
Referee: Brian Gavin (Offaly).
Herald Sport Man of the Match: Fergal Moore (Galway).