Column: Michael Fennelly on hurling
By Michael Fennelly
The week before Kilkenny played Galway in the first round of the 2009 Leinster Hurling Championship, Michael Kavanagh had a few strong words to say in training to the rest of the group.
It was Galway’s first year in the Leinster Senior Hurling Championship, and Michael was keen to point out just how significant a threat they posed to Kilkenny hurling’s history and culture.
The message was unambiguous – by no means was a Connacht team going to come into Leinster and step on our toes.
It would have been a major statement had they lowered our colours in Leinster at the first attempt, and we were very determined that wasn’t going to happen.
I remember the match vividly because my own preparation for it was far from ideal.
That year I’d been laid low by a bout of the mumps the week before the League Final against Tipperary and was forced to rest for two months.
I should have rested even longer than that, but I came back early because I was keen to nail down a place in the Kilkenny midfield.
I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be starting the match against Galway, but injuries to Derek Lyng and Cha Fitzpatrick ended up opening a place for me.
With very little training behind me and my energy levels zapped by the mumps, I wasn’t in the best of shape coming into the match.
But I was team captain that year and when you’re picked to lead your team-mates out for a match of that magnitude you’re never going to turn the opportunity down regardless of the circumstances.
It turned out to be a fast, hard-hitting game and Joe Canning announced his arrival into the Leinster Championship with a goal in the first half and a final personal tally of 2-9.
We started to struggle early in the second half as Damien Hayes floated around the middle third, picking up a lot of breaking ball from the puck-outs and doing damage with it.
Galway were running hard at us and I was in no man’s land and rightly substituted.
Derek Lyng was brought on to replace me and helped settle the ship. Mr Consistent, Eoin Larkin really stepped up to the plate with a flurry of points in the final 15 minutes and we ended up winning the game by four points.
PJ Delaney said to me coming off the field that I must have been happy to start the championship with a win as captain, but the truth that I was just gutted with my own performance.
Galway seriously tested us that day like they usually do, and that’s why we always held them in the utmost of respect.
They were the sort of team that always posed a threat and had players who could score goals.
Year after year their minor teams would churn out stars like Damien Hayes, Niall Healy, Joe Canning, Keril Wade, Aonghus Callanan, and most recently, Jack Canning, so Galway teams have never lacked hurling ability.
But for all of that ability and the underage success they’ve enjoyed in recent years, it’s a fairly stark statistic that they’ve only won two Leinster Senior Hurling Championships since they first started competing in the province in 2009.
Perhaps because of their threat, Kilkenny have been very successful at keeping them down over the course of the last nine year.
As reigning Leinster and All-Ireland Champions, this Galway team will feel though that it’s their time to keep Kilkenny in the shade, which has added to the air of anticipation ahead of Sunday’s Leinster Final.
The Tribesmen will go into the match as hot favourites with good reason.
When the two teams met in the Leinster round robin, Galway were convincing victors at Salthill.
They looked in control throughout and then stepped it up a gear in the final quarter to leave Kilkenny trailing in their wake.
Kilkenny only landed 13 scores (2-11), with the majority of them frees from TJ Reid as well as a last-gasp goal from the hard-working Walter Walsh that made the final scoreline look a bit more respectable.
Kilkenny have struggled for the past couple of years in an attacking sense so this wasn’t all that big a surprise.
Players like John Donnelly, Richie Leahy, Luke Scanlon, and Martin Keoghan to name a few are still developing and it’s going to take time as there all still under 21.
Galway’s U-21s entered the Leinster Championship for the first time this year and beating Kilkenny will surely have given their senior team an extra boost.
Galway will be keen to bring home further silverware on Sunday and will be keen to keep Kilkenny down.
On the flip side, Kilkenny will be seriously fired up to make sure that doesn’t happen and I’ve no doubt that Brian Cody and the players are seriously relishing the scale of the challenge.
They’ve had a couple of intense in-house matches since their Leinster Championship win over Wexford, and health wise they’re in a good place with no serious injuries.
Two of the more senior players in the group, Colin Fennelly and Richie Hogan, were substituted at half-time against Wexford, so you can be sure they’ve been chomping at the bit in training and will be keen to remind everyone what they can do if given the chance on Sunday.
Galway’s defence has looked very assured this year and they’re yet to be really tested.
Kilkenny have lacked firepower this year so you’d wonder have they the wherewithal to provide that test. If they are to, then the delivery into the Kilkenny forwards will be paramount.
Daithi Burke and Gearoid McInerney form a ferociously powerful spine in that Galway defence, and Kilkenny have to find a way to move them around and drag them out of position.
They’ll only be able to do that if the ball delivered into the Kilkenny forwards is well-judged, but quite often opposition defences have little option but to drive hit and hope clearances because of the Galway forwards work-rate.
In order to pull apart this Galway defence I really feel that Kilkenny will have to be smart tactically, because if they just go man for man they may be overpowered.
Kilkenny are probably the most dangerous underdogs you could ever meet, but, that said, I still think they’re a team developing and this test might have come a little bit early for them.
Munster Hurling Final – Clare v Cork
John Meyler is a good friend of mine from my days hurling with Cork IT and has done a fine job since taking charge of the Cork senior hurlers.
It was deemed a blow for Cork when Kieran Kingston stepped down as manager at the end of last year, but the transition under John has gone very smoothly.
Anthony Nash was a classmate of mine in Cork IT and would also have worked with John there.
He’s a vital cog in this Cork machine thanks to the manner in which he consistently raises the bar in terms of his puck-out strategy which creates opportunities and space for his forwards, and confusion in the opposition defence.
I’d love to see some in-depth statistics on his puck-outs, because to the naked eye it looks like he’s the conductor for the Cork attacking orchestra.
He’s comfortable going short, hitting bullet-like passes to players in the middle third, and driving it as far as the opposition ’21 when required.
Cork took a lot of people by surprise with the slickness of their play last year, and beating Waterford, Tipperary and Clare made the Munster medals they won as worthy as they come.
The young players like Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon who made such a big impact in their rookie season of 2016 have kicked on again this year.
Coleman is one of the best players around now and the sort of hurler every county team would love to have at their disposal.
He gives you safety with his tracking ability and creates great attacking possibilities too with his accurate deliveries from deep.
Fitzgibbon has an incredible engine on him as well as a knack for taking a score, which are two serious attributes for a midfielder when you combine them as well as he does.
Overall I think Cork are the most skilful stickmen of any county team right now, but I still think they have fault-lines in their defence are and two or three players short of winning an All-Ireland title.
They beat Clare in last year’s Munster final and already have a Championship win over them this year, but in that most recent match Clare were guilty of missing some gilt-edged goal chances.
They’ll feel if they make better decisions in the attacking third on Sunday that they can reverse that result this time around.
Peter Duggan has added a new element to that forward unit with his height and ball-winning ability, and his free-taking has been superb to.
He’s been unmarkable at times and I think there’s even more to come from him.
Shane O’Donnell has looked really sharp so far this year, but sometimes he doesn’t seem to realise the time and space he’s getting and sometimes he needs to back himself more.
Clare have the ability to carve any team open, but doing it consistently over a 70 minute match often eludes them.
I was just thinking, ‘Wow!’, when I saw them cut through Kilkenny in the first 30 minutes of their League clash earlier this year, and that’s because they gave such a good supply of ball into their inside-forwards who had the Kilkenny full-back line in trouble.
In the second-half though Clare went away from that tactic and started shooting unnecessary wides from long-distance, totally ignoring their most dangerous man, O’Donnell, in the full-forward line.
In the end Kilkenny very nearly reeled them in and Clare were lucky to hold on for the win.
The lack of consistency and game-sense they showed in the second half that day underlined for me why they have flattered to deceive since 2013.
By now they should have developed that maturity. Their best players are all in their mid-twenties now when you’re coming into your physical peak and should have developed leadership skills too.
Clare have so much potential, but they don’t always seem capable of fully unlocking it.
The longer they stay in this Championship, the more chance they have of finding that elusive key.
Even if they lose this Munster Final I believe the Banner are genuine contenders to go all the way.
Perhaps that’s why my gut is telling me that Cork will win Sunday’s Munster Final, but that Clare are the better bet to win the Liam MacCarthy Cup.