It feels like the championship has taken forever to start. The National League was a write-off and the final was a blow-out. Everyone was waiting for last weekend, and even then the Leinster championship produced two dead matches. In Salthill, with the wind and the rain, and the Saturday afternoon throw-in, and the place less than half-full, and Wexford being so lacklustre, it didn’t really feel like the start of anything. And Kilkenny beat Westmeath with ease.
The way the championship works now, though, there’s an opportunity to change your mind every week. Before last weekend, everyone agreed that Limerick couldn’t be beaten; after last weekend, that view slightly changed. I never thought they were that far ahead, although Clare could be in for a tough night on Saturday. Ask me again on Monday.
The two teams that rattled Limerick in Croke Park last summer meet in Nowlan Park on Sunday. It will be the first time this year that Galway and Kilkenny will really get a sense of where they stand. The beauty for both of them is that whatever happens, and whatever needs to be corrected, I don’t think either of them is in any danger of going out of the championship before the All-Ireland quarter-finals, at the earliest.
The Leinster championship is weaker now than any time since the round-robin system started. Galway’s loss to Dublin in Parnell Park in 2019 was a result that knocked us out of the championship because Kilkenny and Wexford drew on the same night. Judging on last weekend, that kind of jeopardy doesn’t exist for Kilkenny and Galway now.
After Sunday, I think, Kilkenny and Galway will meet again in a Leinster final in a few weeks’ time, and I couldn’t tell you who the third qualifier from Leinster will be. Dublin’s crazy decision to take their home games out of Parnell Park against Galway and Wexford really reduces their chances of squeezing through and I don’t know what to make of Wexford. I wouldn’t be surprised if Antrim slipped in as the third team.
I couldn’t get over how poor Wexford were in Salthill. They were eaten alive on turnovers in the middle third, and if you take out the two goals in the opening couple of minutes, their scoring was poor after that. I know they’ve had a lot of injuries, and when Lee Chin doesn’t play they’re missing not just his scores, but his ball-winning and his leadership and his presence and the energy that others take from him. Every team has a player like that who just can’t be replaced.
Go back to the penalty miss for Conor McDonald and three Wexford players threw the ball to each other not wanting to take the responsibility. Eventually it fell to McDonald and fortunately for Eanna Murphy it was badly struck. Stuff like this should be sorted out before the match.
But Galway didn’t have to get out of third gear, and for a championship match against a team that’s supposed to be one of your big rivals in the province that was strange to watch.
Was that Galway’s strongest team? Looking in from a distance, I would say it was. But I know when I was on the inside I used shake my head at some of the things people would say about team selection, when they hadn’t seen any of the training and couldn’t possibly know what was going on. There might be a player who’s flying in training, and will be a bolter in round three or four of the Leinster championship, but I haven’t heard if there is.
At the end of last year I would have felt that Galway needed to find two or three players – if not for the starting team, then at least strong options off the bench. Limerick are bringing 20 players they can trust to every championship match, knowing that they have a variety of subs who can make a difference. For the All-Ireland semi-final last year Galway weren’t in that position.
Evan Niland isn’t a new player, but if he was to make a real breakthrough this summer that would amount to the same thing. Evan was on the panel before I finished, having been a star minor for a couple of years on teams that won All-Irelands. In Galway, or anywhere else, that’s not a guarantee of anything. Evan would have played plenty of league matches over the years, and then found himself on the bench for the championship.
He’s in his mid-20s now and he needed to do something to break that pattern. Evan is not the tallest guy in the world and when he came on the scene first Galway had one of the biggest forward lines in the championship. But size alone isn’t a barrier to anybody making it as a top class hurler as long as they have enough strength to take the hits and their work rate is up to scratch.
Limerick are the biggest team around, but Peter Casey and Graeme Mulcahy are not the tallest of men. Their work rate, though, is savage and that was probably the piece missing from Evan’s game. Since he came in as manager Henry Shefflin has demanded serious intensity from all his players and Evan has come up to that level now.
Because his free-taking is so good it wouldn’t be unusual to see him score 13 points in a game, as he did last Saturday, but for him to score seven from play was a real jump. Tom Monaghan had a breakthrough season for Galway last year, having been a brilliant minor too, and having spent years knocking around the senior panel, without ever being sure of his place. Tom really took his chance last year and that’s the pathway for Evan now.
I’m not sure what to make of Kilkenny yet. I was impressed with them in the first 20 minutes of the League final, but Limerick obviously took over after that. On the other hand, I don’t think you can make a firm judgment about any team from a league match, even the final. Kilkenny didn’t have everyone available that day, and they left TJ Reid on the bench when it was obvious the game was gone.
People are saying the new management has changed Kilkenny’s style of play, but I don’t see much difference. Kilkenny had already changed in Brian Cody’s last couple of years, with more short puck-outs and moving the ball through the lines and a general mixture of short and long. From Derek Lyng’s point of view it would have been foolish to change too much with a team that had come within a couple of points of Limerick in the All-Ireland final.
If anything, I think their panel is a little bit deeper and stronger this year. Lyng has brought in a few lads that he knew from the Under-20s and I saw enough from them in the league to believe that he’ll be using them in the championship at various stages. Billy Drennan made a big impression but I liked the look of Timmy Clifford too. Clifford is very direct and can cause trouble for defences. He might score as much as some of the others but he creates chances.
And TJ is back. Over the years we usually put a man-marker on TJ to follow him wherever he went. Daithi Burke often got the job, but now that he’s moved to centre back I’m not so sure he’ll be sacrificed as a man-marker. Daithi always got on very well against TJ and limited him in open play to very little against us.
I wonder if Galway will take that approach this weekend. TJ might be inclined to stay as far away from Daithi as he can. Kilkenny would often have tried to place their best forward on an inexperienced defender. Looking at the Galway defence now, all of them are versatile and can play in different positions.
If you’re going to designate somebody to follow TJ everywhere, must you do the same for Adrian Mullen and Eoin Cody and whoever else? I think Galway can trust their six backs to pick up whoever arrives in their zone. Kilkenny have such strong options in their forwards now that if you only look at one or two someone else will step up to hurt you.
It wouldn’t be the end of the world for whoever loses, and whoever wins won’t be winning by much. It will be a bigger deal for Kilkenny because they’re at home and maybe even because Galway beat them the last time they met in the championship in Nowlan Park, four years ago. I think both teams will meet again in the Leinster final in a few weeks’ time, though, and that will be more important for both of them. This is just a start.