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Galway’s engine room following the Shefflin template

Galway’s drive to the Leinster final was powered by a hard-working middle third.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

GALWAY’S GLIDING GENIUS was well on his way to an All-Star and 2017 Hurler of the Year when they darkened Croke Park for a semi-final clash with Tipperary. Joe Canning hit ten points in the Leinster final win over Wexford. He was leading the line, their top scorer, delivering what was expected of him by everyone.

Almost everyone. In his column before that semi-final, Henry Shefflin suggested it was time to see the other side of Canning. He had presented prized gems week on week. Now it was time for heavy metal hurling.

“The player that should lead the charge is Joe Canning,” he wrote in the Sunday Times.

“At centre-forward he’s been playing a floating game, picking off great scores and spraying the ball around; nobody in hurling plays that role better than Canning. But today Galway need to see him winning the physical battle: winning hard ball, bursting tackles, putting Ronan Maher on the back foot.”

Shefflin was Kilkenny’s top scorer from play once in nine All-Ireland final appearances. His greatness was defined by a willingness to work rather than inherent wizardry. He embodied what Cody most valued. A boundless appetite for hard yards.

In 2010 before Ballyhale played Portumna in the All-Ireland club final, their video analysis session was short and sweet. James McGarry put the first half of the previous year’s semi-final on the screen and pressed play. They were all over the place, carved open by a rampant machine. The Galway club scored five goals and won by six points.

The difference in the following year’s decider? “Portumna just couldn’t match our hunger,” Shefflin later said. 

In 2012 with Galway five points clear heading into the second half of the All-Ireland final, Shefflin single-handily turned the tide with sheer doggedness. From the moment he won the breaking ball off the throw-in second half and angled a perfect pass to Richie Power to claw back the defect, Kilkenny grappled the game back. Their speciality was making that middle third look like Tokyo at rush hour. 

david-burke-and-henry-shefflin Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Midway through the second half, Shefflin sprinted from deep inside his own half to harry his opposite number David Burke into a wayward pass. From the resulting possession, Kilkenny scored and were back within one. A minute later, he plucked a puck-out out of the sky and sent it straight over to bring the sides level.

The Ballyhale man established a template for half-forwards who would succeed him. That is the mantle Galway’s new look engine room carries now.

For their loss against Dublin last year, Galway lined out with a half-forward line of Cathal Mannion, Adrian Tuohey and Joseph Cooney. Conor Whelan was parachuted in as centre-forward for the subsequent qualifier against Waterford.

fiachra-c-fennell-with-cianan-fahy Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Under Henry Shefflin, Cianan Fahy and Conor Cooney have started all five games in the Leinster championship. Ardrahan native Fahy is one of two new inclusions in the engine room. 

Speaking on The42’s GAA Weekly hurling podcast after their draw in Wexford Park, Anthony Nash said he noticed how Shefflin celebrated certain aspects during the game.

“I like Henry. I thought he was really good on the sideline. He was near me and Cianan Fahy was one of the guys he was applauding. He might not stand out but he ran himself into the ground. I really like the way Galway were going. They are going the right way about it.”

A week later, Fahy hit 1-3 against Laois. His high pressing and interception led to Johnny Coen’s goal against Kilkenny. He scored and assisted against Dublin last Saturday. Above all else, he works and runs relentlessly. Fahy was named on the 2018 U21 All-Star team but only made his senior breakthrough this year.

Tom Monaghan is another gifted underage hurler who was afforded a chance and took it with both hands. Joseph Cooney has been an enforcer and vital cog in midfield. This is a different team, a fresh and driven team with an altered mindset. 

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The jewel in his crown has been Conor Cooney. Since his debut in 2012, the St Thomas’ star has always oozed class. His issue was perceived to be doing it consistently. Such anticipation wasn’t always fair, and nor should scores be the sole yardstick of performance. Cooney has scored 1-42 across five games, yet his real contribution comes in less-heralded areas. 

Against Dublin, the centre forward won three puck-outs and played a part in seven turnovers. Galway mined 0-8 from high turnovers. They raised the temperature beyond anything Dublin could ever fire back. 

This is the bedrock upon which the team can build. Even when shooting is erratic or momentum swings, the safeguard is that the contest zone will be ferocious. Their first principles. 

Cooney

Cooney’s championship started with the harsh late Wexford free fiasco. It was the wrong decision but a necessary one for this team. 

At this stage of their existence, the Tribesmen did not need to escape with a win. They were in control for most of that contest and conspired to let it slip from their grasp. It was an outing that reinforced the need for Conor Whelan to be positioned closer to goal and an improved puck-out plan. 

Adding a little sophistication on top of a rigid energy source. 

The insistence that tactics were a foreign concept in Kilkenny during their reign were always amusing. Perhaps it is preferable to say while they had strategies they rarely dwelled on them. A golden crop with a herculean value system built that dynasty. 

Those terms will define the Leinster final, what comes with it will decide it. 

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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