Hurlers ready to live up to expectationsAugust 9, 2012 - 8:14am
Amazing how radically perceptions can change after just one game. A Galway side regarded by many as big game ‘chokers’, whose 2012 campaign was said to be all about building for the future, suddenly find themselves as red hot favourites going into a first All-Ireland semi-final in seven years when they take on Cork at Croke park on Sunday (3.30pm).
High expectations have rarely rested easily on maroon shoulders, but the manner of the sensational ten point win over Kilkenny in last month’s Leinster final has not only changed perceptions about this Galway team, but blown the 2012 title race wide open – even if the ultimate winners are still expected to come from the second semi-final on Sunday week.
Reaching the last four means that Galway manager Anthony Cunningham and his Cork counterpart Jimmy Barry-Murphy, both in their first year in charge of young sides in transition, have already met their targets for the year.
Chances like next Sunday’s have not come around too often for either county in recent years, however, so all talk of ‘blooding’ for the future has been put on hold in both camps ahead of what has the makings of a mouth-watering tie.
The big question mark hovering over the men in maroon is whether or not they can match the intensity of the superb Leinster final performance, when little was really expected of them against the All-Ireland champions. There was a surreal atmosphere around GAA HQ last month, as Kilkenny were shell-shocked at the end of a first half in which the Tribesmen led by 2-12 to 0-4.
A supposedly suspect defence was transformed as the men in maroon swarmed around the champions with the kind of venom which is supposedly alien to the Tribesmen, epitomised in the excellent performances of David Collins, Niall Donoghue, and Johnny Coen.
The phenomenal work-rate extended to the attack, where Portumna duo Joe Canning and Damien Hayes consistently tracked back to help out their defenders and midfielders.
Kilkenny had no answer to the mobility of the Galway forwards, with Cyril Donnellan and Niall Burke also playing pivotal roles.
Young David Burke (with 4-4 in the championship so far) has revelled in his transformation from a midfielder to a wing-forward this year, while promising St Thomas’ corner forward Conor Cooney also represents the superb wave of underage talent coming through right now for the Tribesmen.
The Galway players and management did not over-celebrate that shock victory over the Cats and they went back to the clubs for a full round of local championship action the following weekend.
They have had five weeks to prepare for this showdown with a Cork side who have emerged with momentum through the qualifiers after suffering a one point defeat to Tipperary (1-22 to 0-24) in the Munster semi-final.
If Galway can match the work-rate of July 8, despite the question marks which still hover over their defence, they should be good enough to reach their first All-Ireland final since 2005.
It is a measure of how much things have changed that only three members of the starting 15 from the 1-21 to 1-16 defeat to Cork in that year’s final – Hayes, Collins, and Tony Og Regan – are set to start on Sunday.
There was good news on Tuesday night when inspirational wing-forward Donnellan returned to limited training. The Padraig Pearses man, who scored five points in the Leinster final, chipped a bone in his lower arm a week after the Leinster final. His form this summer has been phenomenal, but he remains a serious doubt for Sunday.
At least, as Galway selector Tom Helebert confirmed this week, the Tribesmen have no other injury worries as they aim for a third consecutive championship win over the Rebels – they also beat Cork in the 2009 and 2011 qualifiers.
“We are leaving a decision on Cyril until the end of the week to give him every opportunity to get over his injury,” said Helebert.
“He is positive and upbeat. He would be very disappointed to miss out, but the injury happened four weeks ago, so it’s not going to be a shock if we have to field without him. Hurling is no longer a 15 man game and we’ve used the bench in all of our games.
“Everybody else is 100% and the mood has been great in the camp since the full round of club games. Almost all of those games had meaning and it was great for the lads to get back to their clubs after the Kilkenny game. It wasn’t a case that they could rest on their laurels after the Leinster final.”
See more articles previewing the semi-final in this week’s Tribune