Hurling season heads down intriguing avenue

Usually the experience of watching Kilkenny matches has a similar pattern to it, writes Conor Neville.

Usually the experience of watching Kilkenny matches has a similar pattern to it, writes Conor Neville.

Prior to the match, one is inclined to talk oneself into thinking there is a chance of a game here, the opposition are going well, some of Kilkenny’s players are getting on a bit... By the time of throw-in, one reckons that Cork or Dublin or whoever are going to going to get stuck into them and this could be a squeaker.

After about 15 minutes the score is 2-8 to 0-3 to Kilkenny and you feel stupid for ever thinking it was going to be any other way. JJ Delany and Shefflin thundering through tackles with lads bouncing off them like shopping trolleys being rammed by a jeep. Tommy Walsh, all whippet-like aggression and completely imperious in the air. Everytime they get a sniff of a goal they go for the jugular.

Denis Walsh, in his book on hurling in the 1990’s, The Revolution Years, wrote that Clare needed ‘beef’ with someone to be at their best, they needed a grudge or a greivance. Kilkenny always seem to play as if they have a greivance with their opponents even though they have almost invariably won their previous three or four encounters. They seem to hold grudges against teams they’ve beaten 12 times in a row. They got pushed around by Galway once in 2001 and were so mortified they spent the intervening ten years making up for it, we never hear the end of it. Lads with 8 or 9 All-Ireland who have chips on their shoulder.

Last Sunday’s result was an affront to everything we had ever known. Kilkenny were gingery, out-of-sorts, completely blocked out. The first half was teeming with jaw-dropping statistics, probably the most ludicrous being Kilkenny’s failure to register a shot on goal from play until the 25th minute, startling even for a half-normal GAA team.

Galway, whose defeat last year at the hands of Waterford gave new meaning to the word ‘abject’, were full of gusto, physicality and were supreme in the air, precisely the things they’ve been harangued for lacking for years. In Thurles last year, they were brainless in possession, flashing shots at goal from ridiculous angles in a panicky fashion. This year, in addition to their fury in the tackle, they were cool and composed in possession, Iarla Tannion, Andy Smith and Johnny Coen lobbing intelligent balls in the direction of Canning, Donnelan and Burke all afternoon.

Watching the game, for the first twenty minutes you were waiting for the Kilkenny backlash.

1-2 to 0-0: wait til Kilkenny get started...

1-3 to 0-0: Galway are only prodding the beast...

1-4 to 0-0: fair play to Galway but this is just the tonic Kilkenny needed to roar into it and deliver a devastating performance...

When the score hit 1-6 to 0-0 you began to think Galway could be in with a shout in this match. When David Burke rammed home the second goal it had dawned on people what was happening, the few thousand Galway supporters who turned up were bouncing up and down in giddy incredulity while the much larger (and admittedly quite stocial) Kilkenny support were shifting in their seats no doubt perplexed and bemused as to what was happening.

It was as if there was an invicible forcefield on the Galway half-back line which prevented Kilkenny getting beyond it, every break was pounced on by a Galway player (usually Johnny Coen, who was playing a kind of Franco Baresi-style sweeper role), they seemed to have about eighteen defenders.

At half-time the score was 2-12 to 0-4. There was a mixture of elation and the usual mild apprehension among Galway supporters. It was a testament to Kilkenny’s prowess that people still suspected they could still win it, although one Galway supporter suggested it was more to do with their side’s capacity to toss away winning positions. In 1997 in Thurles they led Kilkenny 3-9 to 1-6 at hal-time and proceeded to lose by two points.

Kilkenny did muster something of a challenge in the second-half, Henry Shefflin, full of fury and commitment, began causing some trouble, but by and large one couldn’t consider it an onslought and Galway remained cool and capable throughout, and never anything less than eight points ahead. Galway didn’t shoot some needless wides late on, this business of frantically flashing wild shots in the direction of the goal re-surfaced again but Canning was always imperious up front, roaming along the line to great effect, popping over a few points and Galway remained impressively dominant on their own half-back/midfield line.

One aged, sulking, gravelly-voiced Kilkenny supporter in our vicinity did jeer “you watch, typical Galway” when Richie Hogan struck home Kilkenny’s opening goal, but he resumed his sulking for the remainder of the game, save for the odd witless attack on the referee who was “a Galway man”, an accusation which, if true, should cause something of a scandal within the GAA. Besides him, the Kilkenny supporters grand reputation for classy stoicism in the face of defeat remained intact.

From the euphoria after the result, everyone seemed to regard Kilkenny’s cruel unbeaten run as some kind of dreadfully tyrannical, oppressive phenomenon altogether. Galway’s ability to follow a world-beating performance with a flop is without equal, however this victory seemed to have a different feel about it (like every other one probably). It vindicated their enlightened decision to hop into Leinster, amove which their season some sort of natural, coherent shape. Galway’s opening dip in the championship used to take place in the All-Ireland semi-final in August (save for the odd farcical Connacht ‘final’ or pointless preliminary against New York or someone) a faintly ludicruous situation.

The Championship could take an interesting shape by the end of this year.