The two kings of Leinster are back in Croke Park for the Leinster Senior Hurling Championship final and we preview all the action ahead of the 4 pm throw-in.
Will Kilkenny have learned from their Salthill mistakes?
These two teams have already met in the Leinster Championship this year, with Galway running out comfortable winners on a scoreline of 1-22 to 2-11. That day in Galway, it was the men in maroon who played like the Kilkenny of old. They were physical, ruthless and clinical, defined by a late scoring spree of eight points.
The Cats appeared tame and unsure in comparison, indeed scoring only 1-02 from play with only three players on the scoresheet. There was question marks over their full-back line while the forwards were unable to penetrate the superb Galway half-back line.
But this is a Kilkenny team under Brian Cody, who does not panic. He will have been frustrated with their performance in Salthill and they will emerge from the tunnel, a team with a point to prove. This is Croke Park on Leinster Final day, a scenario they are well used to. The only thing that will be alien to them will be the ‘underdogs’ tag which may very well suit them. Galway are a team flying high, with all eyes on them. Expect Kilkenny to emerge from the long grass, ready to pounce.
TJ Reid v Joe Canning: Who will come out on top?
Whenever Kilkenny and Galway do battle, these two men are always in the spotlight, mainly because of the vital role they play within the team. It’s long been recognised that TJ Reid is the heart and soul of Kilkenny’s attacking play. He is the leader, their playmaker and more often than not, the man that drags them out of trouble with his sharpshooting. This is still a relatively young Kilkenny forward pack and while many will be looking to see what the likes of Martin Keoghan and Richie Leahy can deliver on Leinster Final day, Reid will be expected to carry the mantle once again.
The same could be said about Joe Canning, only now the emphasis isn’t on ‘the Joe show’ but on their forward play as a collective. Canning seems comfortable in the centre-forward position where he starts today, still in the middle of everything but able to bring others into play. Their clinical inside forward line of Conor Whelan, Conor Cooney and Cathal Mannion are all brilliant finishers, thus allowing Canning to roam and create the play instead.
The conversation over who is the better player almost reaches ‘Ronaldo v Messi’ heights among hurling fanatics but instead of pitting them against each other, one should just stand back and admire the skill and class they bring to the game.
How important will the bench be today?
One thing is for sure, that when these two teams face each other in Croke Park, everything is left on the field, and should the game be as breathless as expected, the respective benches will surely have an important role to play.
Galway have made three changes to the team that beat Dublin three weeks ago with Micheál Donoghue calling upon the experience of Adrian Tuohy, Johnny Coen and Joe Canning with Paul Killeen, Sean Loftus and Jason Flynn dropping to the bench. They’re back to what is probably their strongest starting lineup while still being able to hold the x-factor of Jason Flynn and Johnny Glynn in reserve.
Brian Cody has never been one to shy away from making surprise inclusions on big match days, (remember Walter Walsh in 2012?) and today is no different. Billy Ryan from Graigue-Ballycallan will make his senior championship debut in Croke Park today, having featured briefly in the league. The addition of the 21-year old means it is a relatively inexperienced forward pack. Should this slight gamble backfire, Cody has plenty of firepower on his bench that he can call upon, including Colin Fennelly, Richie Hogan and Liam Blanchfield.
Will Galway be the creators of their own demise?
Much focus throughout the league and championship has been on Galway’s mentality. It seems as though Kilkenny are the only team who have mastered the art of back-to-back All Ireland Senior Hurling titles. Tipperary appeared to buckle under the pressure following their wins in 2010 and 2016, and many have been eyeing up this Galway team to see if they will go the same way. So far, however, they have carried the title with ease and confidence in their ability to retain it.
If Kilkenny are to win today they will have to be smart and creative with their play, high balls on top of Daithi Burke and co. will only produce a counter-attack and so that means moving the ball, being pacy and running at the Galway defence. Galway are credited for the huge amount of physicality they bring to every game but it also means that much of their tackling borders on fouling.
Fergal Horgan will have a huge impact whatever way this game goes. If he decides to let Galway play their style, Kilkenny will have their work cut out for them but it could also mean a cracker of a game for the spectators. If he decides to clamp down on the All Ireland champions, then TJ Reid will happily oblige and punish. Officials have been the talking point of too many games of late so hurling fans all over the country will be hoping that isn’t the case today in Croke Park.
Who will lift the Bob O’Keeffe Cup?
The old cliché still rings true – you can never write off Kilkenny. That day in Salthill, they were uncharacteristically poor but they were also missing a number of their key players. Brian Cody will be hoping he has moulded the perfect blend of youth and experience and will have learned from their mistakes in May.
They have been far from their best so far in this campaign, earning their three wins very narrowly. But they are still league champions and they are still a ruthless animal when it comes to Croke Park with a cup on the line.
What’s more likely, however, is that Galway will justify their favourites tag. The All Ireland champions have shown that they are a cut above the competition so far this year while still keeping something in the tank. As captain David Burke proved this week, this is not a team short on confidence and his teammates will be expecting the St Thomas’ man to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand for the second year running.