Galway can pip Waterford to All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship the title as understudies take centre stage
All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final: Waterford v Galway (Sunday, Croke Park, 3.30pm, live on RTE2/Sky Sports)
THE understudies finally get the leading roles they craved as Waterford and Galway share centre stage for the final act of this season’s gripping All-Ireland drama.
The Tribesmen have waited 29 years for a Liam MacCarthy Cup and the Deise twice as long, so the end of an arduous road will come for one county, while the search will continue for the other.
When it comes to All-Ireland finals, Galway have been there – they’ve lost three deciders (including a replay) since 2012.
But Waterford have been thereabouts. Derek McGrath’s side lost semi-finals to Kilkenny in 2015 and last year before finally reaching their first Liam MacCarthy decider in nine years and the county’s ninth overall (they’ve won two).
Waterford’s form has improved steadily since they were well beaten by Cork in a June 18 Munster semi-final. A trip through the Qualifiers saw them annihilate Offaly, but it was victory over Kilkenny in round two that really gave McGrath’s side belief.
The Cats clawed and scrapped but the Deise pulled away to win 4-23 to 2-22 in extra-time and they followed that up with a more comfortable victory over Wexford to book a semi-final spot. Old enemy Cork lay in wait and led by two points going into the final quarter when defender Damien Cahalane was sent off.
After his exit the Rebels collapsed. Goals from Jamie Barron and Austin Gleeson left them dazed and confused and the Deise swept to the All-Ireland final with a 4-19 to 0-20 win.
Galway manager Micheal Donoghue recognised that Cahalane’s dismissal had an influence on the semi-final result, but he stopped short of saying it decided the issue.
“It is a huge turning point when someone goes off,” he said.
“What do you do, do you bring someone back? Cork were right in the game at that stage, but Waterford’s experience shone through when the game was there and they got some great goals.
“Waterford have been one of the most consistent teams in recent years and they were unfortunate last year not to progress to the All-Ireland final.
“So we are under no illusions. We are playing a team with huge experience. Derek has done a great job with them. No more than ourselves, they are where they want to be and we know they are going to be formidable.”
The Christmas lights were on in his native Clarinbridge when Donoghue was appointed Galway manager back in 2015. He didn’t have long to prepare his side for the 2016 campaign but, with the exception of a February NHL loss to Wexford, the Tribesmen have been consistently excellent this season.
With expectations low and attendances lower, they recovered from that early loss to win the League, from Division 1B, seeing off Waterford at the quarter-final stage along the way and getting the better of Limerick and then Tipperary to take the title.
The League finals saw them seamlessly through to the Leinster Championship and Galway began it by taking out Dublin 2-28 to 1-17.
After that win, opponents began packing the scoring zone around the posts to thwart their goal threat and Galway responded by picking off 84 points in three games.
They have conceded goals in every game, but their long range sharp-shooting, led by Joe Canning who has amassed 0-37 this season, has seen them past Offaly, Wexford (to clinch the county’s second Leinster title) and then defending champions Tipp in a thrilling All-Ireland semi-final.
Managers Donoghue and McGrath go back a long way – right back to the All-Ireland minor final of 1992 when Donohue was a half-back and McGrath a bustling centre half-forward.
They traded hits that day and have “hopped things off each other” over the past two seasons as they searched for a way past the twin towers of Tipperary and Kilkenny; the dominant players in the caman code over the last decade.
“We are of the same vintage,” said Donoghue.
“I think he is doing a massive job down there.
“Obviously he has more experience at this level than I have and because we are of the same vintage we made contact last year, not that we’d contact each other regularly but at different periods over the year, we hopped things off each other.
“He is someone I have huge respect for; the way he carries himself, the relationship he has with his own players is something we can all learn from.
“He is real passionate and the biggest thing I find is that if you ring them, you can have a chat with him and hop things off him. He’s been good for me.”
While the Tribesmen have the experience of three recent finals to fall back on, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh and Kevin Moran are the only survivors from Waterford’s last appearance in hurling’s showpiece.
Donohue doesn’t feel his players’ extra layer of experience will count for much tomorrow.
“We have the numerical advantage in terms of having that experience,” he acknowledged.
“But a few of their players have played in an All-Ireland and that will stand to them. I don’t think it gives us a massive advantage.”
Waterford have never lost a Championship match to Galway and manager Derek McGrath obviously doesn’t want to break that run tomorrow.
Since his appointment, McGrath has developed a strategic sweeper system that is the best in the business, but Galway are used to coming up against teams that flood the scoring zone.
The Tribesmen haven’t scored a Championship goal since May, but points have rained in on their run to the biggest stage of all.
With Austin Gleeson their trump card and Pauric Mahoney robotically accurate from placed balls this Waterford side that cut its teeth with minor and U21 All-Ireland titles will come to win tomorrow.
But Galway – with three recent finals under their belts – have a shade more quality all over the field.
The Tribesmen should win to end their long drought and provide the spark for a hundred bonfires in the west.