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Dublin: 6°C Sunday 28 February 2021

The master vs the rookie: Cody and O'Neill set for intriguing Leinster final showdown

Kilkenny and Galway will meet in this year’s Leinster SHC final.

Brian Cody and Shane O'Neill.
Brian Cody and Shane O'Neill.
Image: Inpho

ON A UNIQUE night where the Leinster hurling semi-finals were played against a Halloween backdrop in Croke Park, Galway and Kilkenny advanced to the final after very different victories. 

Galway’s 12-point winning margin over Wexford was fully deserved, their victory so commanding that it prompted Davy Fitzgerald to cut loose on his players in his post-match interview.

It was a real statement of their intent, arriving 18 months after a shock four-point loss to Dublin saw them dumped out of the Leinster championship on scoring difference. 

Galway, All-Ireland champions in 2017 and beaten finalists in 2018, must have quietly noted how far down the pecking order they dropped on the back of a solitary poor campaign.

They played last night with a hunger and energy that left Wexford – a side known for their fitness levels – a beaten docket long before the final whistle.

This looked like the old Galway.

The side that were perennial Liam MacCarthy contenders for much of the last decade. Their sheer size and physicality is frightening, while their stickwork, angles of running and shooting were highly impressive.

Most importantly, they looked fresh.

“What we decided to do was be as fresh and sharp as we could,” said Galway manager Shane O’Neill.

“The backroom team did a fabulous job and we have to get up again for Kilkenny in two weeks. It definitely wasn’t easy for us on the line or the boys inside. They’re exhausted in there.

“I thought if ever there was a team performance that was it. The tracking was good, once we had them turned over we were attacking and had options. We’re happy enough but there are an awful lot of things we can work on.”

gearoid-mcinerney-with-matthew-ohanlon-and-lee-chin Gearoid McInerney fetches a ball above Matthew O'Hanlon and Lee Chin. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Taking charge of his first championship game, O’Neill jigged things around in the absence of the injured Daithi Burke and David Burke (though the latter did make the matchday panel) who were two key lieutenants under Micheal Donoghue.

He employed Gearoid McInerney at full-back, Joseph Cooney at centre-back with Padraig Mannion and Johnny Coen paired at midfield. Joe Canning spent much of his time at wing-forward with Cathal Mannion on the opposite flank

Conor Whelan played slightly in front of inside duo Jason Flynn and Brian Concannon. The quality of delivery into the full-forward line was notable. Galway played those crossfield passes that defenders hate, with Whelan and Concannon contributing 1-8 between them from play.

There were solid debuts for Eanna Murphy, Fintan Burke – who left the fray with a shoulder injury in the 73rd minute – and Shane Cooney on a night where defensively, Galway looked extremely solid. Although Wexford had a few goal opportunities, they took none of them.

The Tribesmen dropped back their wing forwards and closed off the middle channel to the Wexford runners. On the counter-attack they happily mixed it short and long, picking off points at will. Even in these days of high-scoring hurling, 1-28 is a fine scoreline to put up against a side that primarily plays with seven defenders.

They killed the game early and never gave Wexford a sniff of a comeback.

O’Neill might be a rookie at inter-county level but his achievements with Na Piarsaigh, where he helped establish them as a dominant force in the club game, count for a lot.

In the Leinster final in two weeks he’ll come up against the master, Brian Cody, who is in his 22nd year as Kilkenny manager.

the-kilkenny-team-take-to-the-pitch-before-the-second-half The Kilkenny team take to the pitch before the second-half. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Cody struggled to explain why Kilkenny – who looked so awesome when surging into a 15 point lead over Dublin at half-time – scraped through by a point after a most un-Kilkenny-like second-half. 

“As the game wore on obviously Dublin got on top and we were hanging on at the end, that’s for sure. The object of every game is to try to win it and we won it so we’re in the Leinster final. It was a good first-half performance and a poor second-half.

“These things are hard to explain straight away. They won much more ball than we did in the second-half, they won way more dirty ball and we didn’t do that as much as we had been doing,” Cody added.

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“We dominated possession in the first-half obviously and they dominated possession in the second-half. Games like that take on a life of their own and we didn’t do enough to arrest it.

“Obviously our full-back goes up the field and scores a great point in the end and seemed to show what we should have been doing more of. But look, that’s it. We’re in the Leinster final in two weeks’ time and we’ll take that.”

Still, their opening period was so scintillating that you’d almost forgive them for any complacency arriving after the break. TJ Reid looked superhuman, particularly in the first period where he was double-marked but Dublin still couldn’t lay a finger on him. 

The full-forward had 1-7 on the board by the break, although the supply line dried up after half-time. Some of his aerial fetches were spectacular, while he scooped the ball over the bar in his typically consistent manner.

Billy Ryan and Colin Fennelly grabbed a goal apiece, giving Kilkenny’s starting full-forward line a return of 3-12 between them.

colin-fennelly-is-tackled-by-james-madden Colin Fennelly grabbed another goal for Kilkenny last night. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

All three combined for Ryan’s 13th minute goal, which arrived after Reid stole the ball from Eoghan O’Donnell and fed Fennelly, who in turn slipped through Ryan. 

When they were on song in the opening period, it was Kilkenny at their best. John Donnelly and Walter Walsh brought the hard-hitting ferocity on the half-forward as they opened Dublin up almost at will.

They had 3-13 on the board after an opening 35 minutes where their attacking play was slick and Dublin looked shellshocked.

But the Jekyll and Hyde display will be of concern to Cody as they renew acquaintances with Galway in the provincial decider. The final whistle rescued the Cats, who anxiously watched as Donal Burke’s last-gasp free dropped short. 

Dublin packed a serious punch from their bench in Eamonn Dillon and Ronan Hayes, but complacency is a word that’s rarely associated with Brian Cody teams.

“A big lead can be a dangerous thing I suppose,” he reasoned.

“At all times players go out to try to continue on the play until the final whistle. I suppose it’s easy enough to say they upped it and we didn’t up it. Those things are just…who knows, who knows.

“They won the battles, one of the basics of hurling is winning the ball, tackling well and all the rest of it. They beat us in those departments in the second-half but in the first-half we were very, very good.”

Asked if his team needed to be told some home truths before the Leinster final, Cody replied: “I don’t think they need to be told, they’re obviously not up there jumping around with joy or anything. Of course they’re relieved but obviously disappointed with the way the second-half went.

“They don’t need to be told that, they’re going to do everything possible to represent themselves and the county in the way that should be happening all the time.

“I mean which is our real form, the first-half or the second-half? We have questions to answer. Like I said, the object of the exercise is getting to the Leinster final and we’re in it.

“A game under our belt is obviously hugely important. You can’t replicate what happens in a championship game, and that’s what happened today, but lookit, 15 points up at half-time, you could say, ‘look at that’, you know, ‘good performance’ and obviously we’ll look at the second-half and we’ll have lots to learn from that.

“The game the next day, who knows how it’s going to pan out. We’ll take on that challenge.”

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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