BEFORE last year’s All-Ireland final, one Kilkenny player privately remarked that Kilkenny were “never more up for a game in our lives”.
That sense of mission in the past, and the power of feeling it generates, will inevitably fade when compared with the mission in the moment. Still, it was easy to picture what was coming down the tracks considering that the same Kilkenny player had featured in revenge matches against Galway (in 2004 and 2006) and Cork (2006).
For Kilkenny, the pursuit of excellence and the desire to win is greater than titles and glory. Winning is business but last year’s final was personal. Some Kilkenny players were unhappy with the demeanour of certain Tipperary players after the 2010 All-Ireland final and they stored the perceived insult for the appropriate day. Kilkenny’s win and the tone of their performance last September was a mix of redemption and retribution rolled into one.
Anytime a Kilkenny team has lost under Brian Cody, they always beat that opposition in their next meeting. Kilkenny took aggression to a new level last September and Tipperary just weren’t ready for that ferocity, similar in a way that Cork weren’t in the 2006 All-Ireland final, and Galway weren’t prepared for it in 2004 and 2006.
Kilkenny have always been seriously pumped up for revenge missions. They were smarting for two years from their All-Ireland final defeat to Cork in 2004, while they were stewing for 12 months over their defeat to Tipperary in the 2010 final. It took Kilkenny three years to get another crack at Galway after the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final but they wiped the floor with them in 2004. After losing the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final to Galway, they had them gutted with half an hour remaining in the following year’s All-Ireland quarter-final.
After the hammering in July, can you imagine the ferocity and sense of vengeance Kilkenny will now bring to the game on Sunday? Given their big-day experience, and Galway’s inexperience, they will be licking their lips at the prospect of burying them again.
Previewing the match on The Sunday Game on Sunday night, Donal O’Grady said that he would have fancied Galway if they hadn’t already beaten Kilkenny in the manner in which they did. Apart from the motivational factor, O’Grady said that Galway’s performance showed Kilkenny what to expect now on Sunday.
Kilkenny also have big players back, particularly JJ Delaney and Michael Fennelly. What’s more, three other Kilkenny defenders – Tommy Walsh, Paul Murphy and Jackie Tyrrell – hardly trained in the lead up to the Leinster final due to injuries. They will all be far more match-fit this time around.
Despite all they have won, one of Brian Cody’s greatest achievements has been his ability to consistently get his players to play with the outlook and mindset of underdogs. Kilkenny never do complacency but that insidious virus had infected them before the Leinster final.
Kilkenny’s players are always aware of the blitzkrieg hurling Galway can play but the general attitude amongst the group prior to the Leinster final (especially after their destruction against Dublin) was that if they performed, they would win. It was a slight slippage in their standards but it was only natural given the 25-point hiding they had dished out to Galway in the league just three months earlier. Given how Cody loves goading his players to produce big performances, he will really be stoking the embers from that match this week to reignite Kilkenny for a big display.
It is also easy to forget that when Kilkenny did emerge from their slumber in the Leinster final that they won the second half by 2-7 to 0-9. Galway could argue that they had the game sealed in the first half but the difficulty now is in trying to recreate that first half platform, which allowed them to dictate the terms of engagement.
In the Leinster final, Galway were continually looking to contaminate Kilkenny’s aerial possession by knocking the ball down and winning it on the deck. Galway won most of the ruck ball that day but with Kilkenny now aware of that tactic, the test for Galway is to try and outfight them again.
Another concern for Galway was the performance of some of their four senior players (who started against Cork) in the All-Ireland U-21 semi-final defeat to Kilkenny ten days ago. Niall Burke, Conor Cooney, Johnny Coen and James Regan made a combined total of just 21 plays. Burke did get three points from play but Cooney and Regan were anonymous up front.
Yet fears that that performance might have affected the confidence of those players were allayed the following Tuesday night at in a senior training game; Cooney had two goals buried not long after the match had started.
Galway will take great confidence from their Leinster final performance and the key now is to try and replicate their work-rate, application and game-plan that day – and then have the conviction to go for it once more. They will try and swamp the middle-third, get the ball to the deck as quickly as possible and then move it rapidly into a two-man full-forward line, isolating Joe Canning in as much space as possible. If Galway can manage that, and they are mentally prepared for the hellish backlash, they could very well win.
However, you bet against Kilkenny at your peril. Especially in grudge matches. And particularly in All-Ireland finals.