the big one

Gleeson loss, elder Déise lemons, X-Factor up front - Galway-Waterford talking points

The counties lock horns in the All-Ireland senior hurling final at Croke Park.

THE SCENE IS set for a novel All-Ireland senior hurling final between Galway and Waterford at Croke Park.

The Tribesmen come into the decider as reigning Allianz League and Leinster champions, and the bookies favourites to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

Mike Shaughnessy / INPHO Mike Shaughnessy / INPHO / INPHO

But they’ll have to work for it against a well-drilled Waterford outfit which has recovered well from a Munster semi-final loss to Cork in June.

So, will it be maroon and white or white and blue ribbons adorning the famous silverware in the Hogan Stand at full-time?

Here, we take a look at some of the big talking points ahead of what promises to be an intriguing encounter.

1. Long famine will end for winning county

Tony Keady The late, great Tony Keady. ©INPHO ©INPHO

Waterford haven’t won an All-Ireland senior hurling title since 1959 and have contested just one final in the intervening period.

In 2008, the Déise were whipped by a Kilkenny team playing at the peak of its powers, and it’s taken the county nine years to get back to the first Sunday in September.

But Galway are also itching for success, with their last All-Ireland senior win achieved back in 1988.

Recently-deceased Tony Keady was a key member of that team and his recent passing was met with huge shock in Galway hurling circles, and within the wider GAA community.

Keady’s untimely death is sure to fuel Galway with added motivation to honour his memory but manager Micheál Donoghue will be anxious to strike a fine balance between emotion and executing the gameplan he has devised.

Galway have lost All-Ireland finals in 2015, 2012, 2005, 2001, 1993 and 1990 since last claiming the big prize – but there’s a feeling in the county that the long wait is about to end.

2. Conor Gleeson’s absence

James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Waterford’s rising star Conor Gleeson is ruled out of the All-Ireland final through suspension.

The Fourmilewater clubman was reported for striking Cork’s Patrick Horgan in the closing stages of the semi-final.

Tadhg de Búrca’s return from a one-match ban will see him slot back into the Waterford defence but Gleeson’s absence will still be keenly felt.

Even before he broke into the starting team in the summer of 2016, former Waterford player John Mullane rated Gleeson as the best man-marker in the county.

This summer, he picked up Cork’s Alan Cadogan, Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan, Conor McDonald of Wexford and Cork dangerman Conor Lehane, doing really well on each occasion.

Gleeson would have been tailor-made for a role on Galway’s roving Joe Canning – but manager Derek McGrath must now make alternative plans.

3. New challenge for Galway against Waterford system

James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Galway have been used to playing against defensive systems this year – and have comfortably dealt with each challenge.

Galway haven’t scored a goal in three of their four championship outings but have run up big points totals.

They collected 2-28 in the Dublin victory, 0-33 against an Offaly side operating with a double-sweeper and 0-29 in the Leinster final win over Wexford.

Even though Tipp played more conventional in the All-Ireland semi-final, a tally of 0-22 was still good enough to see Galway home by a point.

But now Galway will face a Waterford team that will ask them all kinds of questions in an attacking sense.

With Tadhg de Búrca sitting in front of his full-back line, Waterford will hope to nullify Galway’s goal hopes.

And while the Tribesmen have been happy to ‘beat the blanket’ by shooting accurately from distance in some of their previous games, the presence of Darragh Fives on Waterford’s 65m line will make life difficult for Galway’s long-range marksmen.

4. Galway need to ask Waterford questions

Eddie Brennan scores his 1st goal Eddie Brennan scores his first goal as Kilkenny crush Waterford in the 2008 All-Ireland final. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

Waterford are a team that, when they get ahead, are difficult to peg back.

But if Galway can build up a lead of four or five points, Waterford will be forced to commit to attack that bit more, which could play into the Tribesmen’s hands.

The ideal scenario for Galway is to gain their own foothold early, and dictate the terms of engagement.

It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see Waterford crumble under the kind of blitzkrieg that scuppered their final hopes in 2008, as their defensive system will help to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Galway’s job is to think their way through this final and hurl with real precision.

They must find a way to curtail the influence of de Búrca in that sweeper role – and playing diagonal ball into the corners for Conor Cooney and Conor Whelan is one way to do that.

Galway’s half-back line has been a solid line for them this year and they’ll enjoy plenty of possession in that area of the field.

But what they do with ball in hand will prove crucial to their hopes of victory.

5. Waterford’s elder statesmen leading the charge

Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh is 34 years of age and captain Kevin Moran’s 30 but these two guys have been brilliant for Waterford this summer.

Walsh is a regular recipient of deliveries from goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe and his ability to hold possession and draw frees or bring team-mates into play is a key feature of Waterford’s play.

Moran still has the energy levels to get up and down the park and while he’ll sit a little deeper and allow Jamie Barron to get forward, the De La Salle clubman has still managed to pick off 1-12 in the championship.

Moran’s really hit the high notes in Waterford’s last two outings, posting 1-3 against Wexford and 0-4 in the semi-final victory over Cork.

Walsh has collected crucial goals in the Kilkenny and Cork (All-Ireland semi-final) victories and few hurling fans would begrudge these long-serving stars a Celtic cross.

6. Canning and Gleeson to bring final X-Factor

This final will pit two of the game’s finest individual talents against each other.

In the white and blue corner stands 2016 Hurler of the Year Austin Gleeson, and in the maroon and white corner we have All-Ireland semi-final match-winner Joe Canning.

Both men can drift out of games for spells but then grab them by the scruff of the neck when the need is greatest.

In their roving number 11 roles, they’re central characters in this final plot and the attacking fulcrums for the respective teams.

But don’t underestimate the hard yards Gleeson and Canning will put in to aid the cause.

With both managers putting a heavy emphasis on work-rate, we can expect Gleeson and Canning foraging selflessly around the middle third, providing support to their midfielders and half backs.

But what Derek McGrath and Micheál Donoghue will want to see is their key man on the front foot, creating and taking chances and helping to fire their team to the Holy Grail.

7. But it’s not all about those two…

whelan barron Galway's Conor Whelan and Waterford's Jamie Barron are Hurler of the Year contenders.

We’ve already mentioned the influence of Kevin Moran and Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh on the Waterford team above, while Jamie Barron’s form has placed him firmly in ‘Hurler of the Year’ territory.

Noel Connors has enjoyed a solid season at corner back for Waterford while Galway have their own Hurler of the Year candidate in Conor Whelan, who’s been superb this summer.

Among Galway’s other leading acts in the 2017 campaign are Daithí Burke at full-back and Gearóid McInerney in the centre back position, two problem roles for the Tribesmen since the days when Conor Hayes and Tony Keady occupied the number 3 and 6 shirts.

And so while Gleeson and Canning are the headline grabbers, both teams possess players of real substance and quality in all areas of the field.

The respective goalkeepers, Galway’s Colm Callanan and Waterford’s Stephen O’Keeffe, will have big roles to play in terms of their puck-out strategy, and keep an eye out for Galway’s Aidan Harte.

When opposition teams set up with a sweeper, Galway follow suit and Harte is one of the best in the country in playing a specialised role.

Waterford may have the standard bearer in de Búrca, but Harte’s arguably as good and he’ll enable Galway to match sweeper fire with fire.

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