IT TOOK THEM three games this summer but Kilkenny finally discovered how to tackle the challenge that Galway pose.
Amidst all the tributes that will be showered upon them after Sunday’s All-Ireland final triumph, that is the greatest achievement of this Kilkenny setup. It is rare that this side have been truly tested but this summer we have seen Anthony Cunningham’s side manage that on two separate occasions.
And yet Kilkenny rose to the task in front of them in magnificent style. This victory strikes me as being truly special for Brian Cody. He and his management team discovered a system of play to dismantle Galway. They deserve huge credit for that.
All over the pitch, Kilkenny’s tactical ploys reaped a handsome dividend. JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh remained in their defensive berths where they could dictate the game rather than be dragged around the pitch. The positioning of Cillian Buckley worked well at midfield.
The bold gamble of throwing young Walter Walsh in at corner-forward was a wonderful success story. And they got it right with Richie Hogan at full-forward who I think was a strong candidate for the man-of-the-match award as he caused Kevin Hynes all sorts of problems.
Brian Cody may have conceded after the Leinster final that he and his management team made errors but all of those were rectified. Kilkenny’s forward line received huge criticism after that clash in July and it was deserved given the nature of their performance.
On Sunday they were outstanding with their composure and skill on the ball but their work rate when they did not have possession was also terrific. They devoured loose ball and pressured Galway into directing aimless clearances to their attack.
Pic: INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Kilkenny’s start to the match was also key. In the Leinster final they collapsed after Galway struck early goals and in the drawn All-Ireland final, it took them some time to recover after Joe Canning found the net early on. On Sunday they issued significant statements of intent when TJ Reid pointed after David Burke’s first goal and then Richie Power hit the net after Burke’s second goal.
It was a phenomenal response. Generally when a team gets the boost of early goals, they create momentum that they can thrive on. Kilkenny never allowed Galway to do that. At half-time there was only four points between the teams and there appeared to be a school of thought that Galway had done well to be in that postition. But I felt they were in big trouble and only those two goals had kept them within touching distance on the scoreboard.
In the second-half Kilkenny simply stormed clear. Galway will reflect on setbacks like Cyril Donnellan’s goal being disallowed, Joe Canning’s shot striking the upright and Donnellan then being sent-off. They were major blows for them to absorb but Kilkenny were the better side. Even if they had shipped goals and Galway retained a full complement of players, Kilkenny always looked capable of stepping up and staying in front.
Galway made mistakes. Starting James Skehill in goal clearly backfired. It didn’t cost them the game but it didn’t aid their cause either. From the early stages he did not look comfortable and as assured as we have seen him earlier this season. It was a difficult situation for him to be in.
But having partially dislocated his shoulder on Friday night, he should not have been forced into a scenario of playing in an All-Ireland final on the Sunday. The demands of the game were too great and players carrying injury cannot be expected to perform to their optimum on All-Ireland final day. It smacked of not having trust in Fergal Flannery as a replacement.
With seventeen U21’s on their panel, Galway have huge potential and scope for improvement. They have made great progress in 2012 but Sunday demonstrated just how high Kilkenny set the bar.
If I was part of the Galway management, one issue I would address for next season is trying to bring Shane Kavanagh back onto the panel. It was an error to remove him from the panel and he is the type of player they need in their defensive spine.
As for Kilkenny, how much more praise can we give them? This is an exceptional group of players and management. I’ve already mentioned the achievement of their leader on the sideline, Brian Cody, but their leader on the pitch made just as extraordinary a contribution.
Henry Shefflin was again to the fore yesterday but the key was that other forwards helped him in setting the tone. They were marvellous to watch and fully deserving of the 11-point victory that saw them crowned All-Ireland champions once more.