Opinion: Lack of player rotation contributed to Galway losing All-Ireland crown

IN RETROSPECT, GALWAY’S failure to defend their All-Ireland crown may not have been all that surprising.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

They roared to life in the concluding minutes of the All-Ireland final against Limerick to set-up a tense finish, and had there been more legs in Joe Canning’s last-minute free, we could well be preparing for a replay at this point.

But in truth, there were signs that a defeat was on the horizon for Galway considering how they stuttered to victory against Kilkenny and Clare on the way back to the All-Ireland final.

They seemed to be stuck in a habit of coughing up big leads which certainly hampered their performances, and their captain David Burke has since revealed that some of the Galway players were getting treatment for injuries at 3am, such was the physical impact of their nine-game run to the 2018 decider.

But Galway were also guilty of not introducing new blood into the starting line-up to help develop the squad as they sought to defend their All-Ireland crown.

Aside from James Skehill replacing Colm Callanan in the goalkeeper position, the same 14 outfield players started both the 2017 and 2018 All-Ireland finals. Position wise, the teams are almost identical.

James Skehill

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

That’s not to suggest that players don’t deserve their place in the team.

Regular starters such as Daithí Burke and Joe Canning have been immense during the championship while defender Pádraic Mannion was the unanimous choice on the Sunday Game panel for Hurler of the Year.

But without more players challenging for those jerseys, it leaves their starting teammates prone to falling into a comfort zone and developing a complacent mindset.

The Galway management brought eight players into the extended panel back in January, including Brian Concannon who made his senior championship debut in their Leinster opener against Offaly.

He featured regularly throughout the rest of the campaign including the drawn Leinster final against Kilkenny, and would most likely have contested for a place in the lead-up to the All-Ireland final had he not been suspended.

But a team needs more fresh faces consistently pushing to get into the team in order for the side to grow.

Niall Burke and Jason Flynn deservedly drew all the plaudits for their contribution off the bench in last year’s All-Ireland final against Waterford, hitting a combined four points from play to help Galway end a 29-year famine and reclaim the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

Jason Flynn celebrates scoring a point during the 2017 All-Ireland SHC final.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The problem however, is that both players were still Micheál Donoghue’s main options as impact subs during this championship. And when the team was stung with injuries to key defenders like Gearóid McInerney, there were concerns as to who could come in to replace him.

Joseph Cooney ended up coming back into their defence for the Clare replay to help fill the void.

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Speaking on Off The Ball on Monday night, Tommy Walsh remarked that Kilkenny used to make an average of three changes per game during his time in the jersey. That kind of number brings an injection of freshness to the team without causing any major disruption to the overall line out.

Tommy Walsh

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

More importantly, it keeps players on their toes and reinforces the message that no one’s hold of the jersey is secure.

Brian Cody’s legacy as the Kilkenny manager is largely down to his proactive approach to making changes in personnel, and for the most part, his instincts have proven to be correct even when the changes weren’t obvious to everyone else.

Many were left puzzled when he began moving 2008 All-Ireland winning captain James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick out of the team’s regular rotation, but Kilkenny continued to succeed in his absence and the Ballyhale Shamrocks clubman eventually retired from inter-county hurling in 2011.

Additionally, Cody has developed a reputation for springing new talents into the team who have gone on to have a major influence in big games.

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Starting Walter Walsh in the Kilkenny forward line for the replay of the 2012 All-Ireland final against Galway proved to be a masterful move on Cody’s part. Walsh was previously a fringe player in the panel but he picked up an impressive 1-3 in that replay.

Joe Canning.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

To Galway’s credit, they did come through each of those nine championship games unbeaten this year, and when Clare and Kilkenny posed questions of them, the Tribesmen responded each time to get the result.

As Joe Canning pointed out in his post-match interview with the Sunday Game after the All-Ireland semi-final replay, Clare never led at any stage in that game despite the pressure they applied in the final stages of the tie.

Galway forward Joe Canning named man of the match in the semi-final replay victory over Clare #SundayGame pic.twitter.com/nnxfmdxKiU

— The Sunday Game (@TheSundayGame) August 5, 2018

Galway’s ability to get back to the All-Ireland final in what will surely be remembered as one of the greatest hurling championships is also a notable achievement.

But their lack of player rotation in the team was a costly factor in their loss of the All-Ireland crown.

– An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that James Fitzpatrick was a James Stephens’ clubman. This has been amended to note his club is Ballyhale Shamrocks.

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