The tag of pre-match favourites used to be something of a burden for Galway hurling teams, but there is a sense the current group will relish the challenge of maintaining the high standards set in demolishing Wexford when they take on old foes Kilkenny in the Leinster final on Saturday evening (6.15pm ).
In Galway’s twelfth campaign in the eastern province since being admitted in 2009, Padraic Mannion is bidding to become only the third Galway captain after Fergal Moore (2012 ) and David Burke (2017/18 ) to hoist the Bob O’Keeffe Cup aloft.
Of those three previous successes, two were wins over Brian Cody’s Cats, but they have also been on the losing end against Kilkenny in the finals of 2010, 2015, and 2016, when then Hurler of the Year Richie Hogan’s introduction at half time turned the tide for the men in black and amber.
Throw in the painful All-Ireland final defeats of 2012 and 2015, and Kilkenny’s dominance of the fixture since ‘09 reads won seven, lost one, drew two by that stage.
Since then, however, the counties' fortunes have headed in opposite directions. Galway are unbeaten in four championship meetings since then, and they even ended Kilkenny’s proud home record in Nowlan Park in 2019 with an epic 3-20 to 2-22 win.
It was Kilkenny, though, who went on to reach the All-Ireland final last year before being exposed by Tipperary, and it was really only the manner of their second-half collapse against Dublin in the recent semi-final that punctured talk they may be capable of going one step better this year.
Eoin Cody and Ciaran Wallace made their championship bows against Mattie Kenny’s men, but it was the usual suspects TJ Reid and Walter Walsh who did most of the damage as Kilkenny opened up a whopping 3-13 to 0-7 interval lead.
The proverbial handbrake seemed to be applied in the second half, and Dublin took full advantage to draw level in the closing minutes, before substitute Alan Murphy and Huw Lawlor rescued Kilkenny from what would have been a hugely embarrassing loss.
Galway of course will be eager to take the shortest possible route to an All-Ireland final, if only to avoid the possibility of any Covid-19-related issues severely affecting Shane O’Neill’s panel given the inflexibility of the current fixture structure before the All-Ireland semi-final stage.
The successful tactics employed by Galway against Wexford, opening up space for inside forwards, and taking points from distance was all based on a ferocious work-rate when the sliotar was broken to the deck. The question is whether Shane O’Neill’s side will have as much joy against a Kilkenny side which Cody will surely have primed to relish the physical tussles.
Whether Daithí Burke will force his way back into the side is the primary question facing O’Neill in the run up, and if so, who will be jettisoned from what was a solid defensive showing, albeit against a side that does not have an attacker anywhere close to the class of TJ Reid or physical stature of Colin Fennelly.
The versatility of a large number of the Galway panel, though, gives O’Neill plenty of options along almost every line of the field, with the likes of David Burke surely itching to see game time, while the news that Fintan Burke’s shoulder knock was not as serious as first thought was a welcome boost.
Galway will surely look to shackle Reid as much as possible first and foremost, with Joseph Cooney perhaps the ideal man-marker after his impressive nullification of Conor McDonald last time out. Joe Canning will crave move involvement in open play, while Conor Whelan poses a unique threat as a potent mixture of pace and power.
Goalkeeper Eanna Murphy made three good saves on his first start and his sharp reflexes may be needed again. If the netminder can keep a clean sheet, it is very hard to see Galway being beaten, but there is no doubt that referee Fergal Horgan will need to be at his sharpest to maintain order in Croke Park.