YOU’D wonder what went through Shane Walsh’s head as the ball hung high in the dark grey Carrick-on-Shannon sky. It hadn’t been his day. The magic moment you come to expect slipped from his grasp. Rip up the script.
Less than 24 hours previously, Toulouse defeated Ronan O’Gara’s Stade Rochelais to win the French Top14 title. Toulouse’s playmaker, their mercurial talent, their own magician, Romain Ntamack sliced through an impenetrable defence like a knife through butter. A 70-yard run-in with over 78 minutes played.
That’s how heroes are made, that’s how titles are won.
Only moments earlier, Ntamack had missed touch with a kick to the corner. It should have been the defining moment. Ntamack had been below par all game. The French papers have questioned his form, his ability, as a home World Cup draws ever nearer.
Pressure probably made the Toulouse out-half crumble. It would have been so fresh in his head as he gathered possession 10 metres inside his own half. UJ Seuteni sensed a weakness, shooting out of the line in an attempted tackle that would have cemented the scapegoat status of a magician without a wand.
But you don’t need a wand to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Try time. Zero to hero. Champions.
Monday morning would have brought contrasting emotions for Shane Walsh and Romain Ntamack. The Galway man could well have been nursing a headache of a different kind had his side topped their group, but with just a week to recover, that goes out the window fairly quickly.
Mayo would hardly have had a pep in their step at the prospect of a knockout encounter in Salthill either. A few months ago, these sides met in the Division One decider in Croke Park. Only a few weeks ago, after Roscommon’s draw with Dublin, James O’Donoghue declared that a team from Connacht would win the All-Ireland.
The past weekend made that look rather fanciful. It’s safe to say he wasn’t talking about Sligo. If Davy Burke, Kevin McStay, and Pádraic Joyce were concerned about the hype train a little over a week ago, then that train has been cancelled, or delayed at the very least (a fitting tribute to the Irish public transport system).
Now it’s time for one of the big guns to go. This merciful Championship structure has suddenly put his foot down. There isn’t much in the line of plain sailing when you kiss the Atlantic coast.
And the talismanic Seán Kelly looks certain to miss out for the Tribesmen. He was hobbling heavily after an apparent achilles injury, and it is no real surprise given the amount of football the Maigh Cuilinn man has played in 2023.
It is one less thing for Mayo to worry about. It seems the only way to curtail the “full-back” is to man-mark him. That task would more than likely fall to a forward, and Mayo could do with the likes of Jordan Flynn conserving his energy for the Galway half of the pitch.
It is an attack that dazzled during the league, but hasn’t really since. Flynn and Ryan O’Donoghue were the only starting forwards to score against Cork. James Carr was taken off at half-time, with his screamer in the opening league match against last year’s All-Ireland finalists feeling like a fever dream.
Galway, for their part, haven’t exactly set the world alight. They had been tipping away, with everyone in agreement that they were in a good place. That’s the mentality you harness with a winning routine, but one defeat chips it away far faster than a win can ever build it.
Last week Pádraic Joyce had an impressive squad at his disposal. This week, he doesn’t know his best team.
The biggest game they had played this year, prior to the defeat to Armagh, was the Connacht semi-final win over Roscommon. Damien Comer should have won man-of-the-match that day. On Sunday he didn’t play a minute.
Joyce has also switched his goalkeeper on a few occasions. Bernard Power was strong on kickouts in the provincial semi, but Connor Gleeson has come back into the fold of late. With Aidan O’Shea in at full-forward, Kevin McStay’s men will look to exploit the former Athlone Town man’s perceived vulnerability under the high ball.
It does seem however, that Galway have less to be worried about. They look assured in their system, with the experienced Johnny Heaney as sweeper an example of an unsung hero. Matthew Tierney has made a habit of converting crucial scores, while Salthill-Knocknacarra’s man mountain John Maher will do damage, either from the start or as a sub.
Mayo, for their part, looked lost at times against Cork. Peter Canavan and Paul Flynn highlighted their lateral play. A switch of the play does create chances, but it creates nothing at a pedestrian pace. Paddy Durcan, so often a line-breaker in the past, looks less of a player without the threat of Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle etc running alongside him.
Roscommon provide a good focal point here too. Galway will pose a similar challenge to the one which Mayo failed in the Connacht Championship. On that occasion, the Green and Red’s issue was running the ball into traffic. The Rossies stripped them at will, mixing rapid counter attacks with slow and steady periods of possession.
You sense that Mayo cannot fall behind. The notorious elements of Salthill could play in their favour, and should they build a lead with a wind advantage, it will pose questions of Galway’s forward line, one which has chopped and changed in almost every Championship match. The talented Peter Cooke is also a weak link tracking back.
Mayo can get at Gleeson’s kickouts. They have to. They may not have the same size, but if they compete well enough to create breaking ball, they can get the bodies to swarm Tierney. But that is a big if against a huge Galway team. Comer will be a favourite of Gleeson’s on the long ball, should he start.
It just feels as though Galway will be able to dictate. The Conor Loftus experiment at centre-back will face its toughest test to date. Don’t be surprised to see Comer sit at centre-half forward, with the industrious Ian Burke freeing up Walsh inside.
The Armagh defeat could be the kick up the arse this Galway team needed. They should have enough to come through this test.
Verdict: Galway by 4