Thursday, March 7, 2013


The Power of the Scrum:

Ireland's pack was shunted around Murrayfield Sunday week last in the set piece. By contrast, at the same time, Galway and Kilkenny basically scrummaged each other to a status quo in Salthill, albeit the scoreboard declared that Galway had prevailed on goals scored.

The prevalence of groups of hurlers gathering round a woe begotten sliotar, much as a wolf pack administers the kill has generated comment recently. Principally because former Limerick great Eamonn Cregan lamented how messy the game has become. He has of course a point on an aesthetic level, although his own Mary Immaculate charges hit plenty on aimless aerial deliveries in last weekend's Fitzgibbon Cup Final.

But a game descending into such tumult shouldn't necessarily be a badge of dishonour to practicioners. In fact the free flowing nature of Cork v Tipperary clashes in the last couple of years have been an indication of the relative soft centre of both sides.

Partly the reason that Kilkenny and Galway are top of the pecking order at the moment is because of the physicality that leads to scrimmaging. The quality on show in their  first round league clash was decidedly spotty. For example Kilkenny's starting forward line only scored three points from play, yet Galway's backs, with the exception of an eye catching display from Joseph Cooney, didn't pull any trees either. It may matter little as we know that these two sides set the physical pace. Never mind the quality, feel the scrummaging width!

Five Years on the Go:

The full quote from Tipperary manager Eamon O'Shea read, 'a lot of these fellows are five years on the go and quite simply we need to come up something different.' The comments could be seen as somewhat alarming, (one imagines Brian Cody and his venerable lieutenants throwing their eyes to heaven) especially as Tipp fans hoped that the return of O'Shea to the fold would re-awaken the team of 2010.

Tipp's recent travails-albeit that other counties would settle for back to back Munster success- are down to quite different issues in backs and forwards. In defence even three years ago there was a lack of depth. The subsequent loss of Declan Fanning was insufficiently remarked upon. No new players on display in the heavy defeat in Pairc Ui Rinn. Conversely there is plenty of talent in the forwards, and, with the introduction of John O'Dwyer, not all of it reheated. Yet the likes of Noel McGrath and Seamus Callinan badly need to sting like bees in 2013. Floating like butterflys wont do for a forward line needing the leadership mantle to move from Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly.

But just as pertinently why is the Tipperary manager hinting at a jadedness in his panel, when the likes of Henry and JJ keep coming back for even more. Does it point to a weakness in the modern Tipp psyche? Were they sated by 2010, believing that all was now right with the world and they could party like it was 1971. Tipp won their 22nd All-Ireland in that year, they have won four since)

Watch this space.

Quantity and Quality(?) in Waterford

Prior to the victory against Clare all was seen to be doom and gloom down Suirside. Especially since the retirement of John Mullane and the announcement of the unavailability of Stephen Molumphy. Only four members of the 2008 All-Ireland Final side ( Moran, Walsh, Nagle and Seamus Prendergast ) will likely line out in the summer. The likes of Ken McGrath, Dan Shanahan and Tony Browne are well nigh irreplaceable.

But no matter what happens in 2013 the Waterford hurling future isn't as stark as might be imagined. If the hurling die hard dusts down his 1998 Munster Final Programme, he(or she) would note the huge percentage of the players that came from just three clubs, Mt. Sion, Ballygunner and Lismore. Talent is much more broadly spread around the county now. And indeed there is more of it. There was a very thin pool beneath the golden generation of the 1998-2008 era. Nowadays Waterford compete much more consistently at underage level. Their minors have made it to Croke Park in three of the last four years.

Surprisingly this competitiveness hasn't translated to the under-21 grade in recent times. But five of the players ( Paudie O'Mahoney, Gavin O'Brien, Darragh Fives, Jake Dillon and Jamie Barron ) who featured in the opening round league victory in Ennis will face Clare in a Munster under-21 semi-final in July, where Waterford will attempt to dethrone the Munster and All-Ireland Champions. Sods law indicates that Waterford can't continue to underachieve at this grade.

Although Waterford and Clare will meet at least once more at senior level this year, it could be the under-21 clash that is the one to watch.

The haves and have nots amongst the hurling counties

As a general guide the counties who are perceived to be All-Ireland contenders are those who have their full complement of players available, i.e Galway, Kilkenny, Tipperary. Clare and Limerick wouldn't be in that category, but the fact that essentially all the best players in those counties are available for selection indicates that their fortunes are perceived to be on the rise.

On the flip side the apathy, first weekend victories notwithstanding,  about the 2013 prospects for Cork, Waterford and Dublin are linked to losses to their panels. The absences of quality players is just as marked at the next level of counties. It's hardly likely that promising young players such as Wexford's Matthew O'Hanlon and Diarmuid O'Keeffe would have gone travelling if they had been born across the border in Kilkenny.

This topic came to mind to this blogger whilst watching the Division 1B League game between Dublin and Offaly. The high water mark for Offaly hurling in recent years was the exciting Leinster Championship draw against Galway in 2010. Of the nineteen players who lined out that day for Offaly, nine featured against Dublin, with only David Kenny and Daniel Currams likely to return for 2013 combat. Also the classy Diarmuid Horan, who returned to the panel last year has apparently left again. Granted the sands of time ran out for a few, notably David Franks and Brendan Murphy, but some other talented  players don't seem to want to give the commitment to a county that would struggle to get to an All-Ireland Quarter Final even with a favourable wind.

As each year passes by the magnitude of the achievement, that saw a county win four All-Ireland's between 1980 and 1998, essentially picking from 20,000 people in the area surrounding Birr, seems more incredible.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tipperary v Dublin

It's the semi final that dare not speak its name mark two. No one will hear of Tipp v Kilkenny mark three not happening. You sense that even if Dublin weren't shorn of five members of their panel a similar level of confidence would still be permeating from the Premier; hubris being something that has never been far from the surface down those parts. One could argue that if Keaney, Brady et al were available Tipp, with one eye on Kilkenny, could have been in for a rude awakening. Talk of the B team taking the scalp of the A team in a training match is being showcased as an example of the rude health the All-Ireland champions are in, post their Munster coronation. It could though be equally posited as a sign that Tipp's first choice back line is not one that should grace a team for the ages. We shall keep an eye on the evidence but just point out at this stage that if Brendan Maher is back to his best after injury John O'Keeffe, or Gearoid Ryan come to that, shouldn't be keeping him from the first fifteen.

Declan Ryan possibly feels, deep down, that he can keep Maher's powder dry, and that twenty or so minutes will suffice today for the Borrisleigh man. Looking at the match in microcosm, it could still be a slightly risky strategy. Anthony Daly will presumably hurl Liam Rushe or Ryan O'Dwyer into his parish hoping to crack O' Keeffe. Indeed the Dublin manager would have some cause to feel , despite the onerous blow to the depth of his panel, that he can compete in most areas. Paul Ryan and a back to form Dotsie O' Callaghan could win ball against a Tipp full back line that has coped rather than excelled thus far. At the other side of the field Dublin's full back line has actually played admirably in the last three halves of combat, although today is still a step up.

It is though in their half back line ( ironically not an area the currently peerless Lar Corbett will feature much ) that you would fear for Dublin. Shane Durkin had his least prepossessing game of the year in the quarter final. Joey Boland has been slow to recover from injury, albeit the last 20 minutes against Limerick were a slight encouragement. Beside him though Michael Carton, only recently returned to the panel, is seriously thrown in at the deep end with only the Limerick game behind him. The inclusion of Carton and Liam Ryan in the starting team is an indication of the fraying at the edges of the Dublin panel, albeit also an indictment of the trust management have in the likes of Mossie O'Brien, Simon Lambert and Daire Plunkett for such a big game.

Dublin will doubtless need their opponents to be bereft of the stardust their forwards sprinkled on the Munster Championship. Indeed it isn't necessarily in Tipp's interest for them to let leash fire and brimstone today. Tipp's luck, - that of the more I practice variety- is liable to desert them someday, and it's perhaps best that it isn't against a team orchestrated by Henry Shefflin. Dublin also need Peter Kelly to have the game of his life and Conor McCormack to return to the bustling nuisance of the league final. Premier overconfidence may have been fatal versus a full strength Dublin xv. Some of the garlands thrown at them in previews have been excessive: Admirably and all as he's maturing Eoin Kelly is not the player of 5/6 years ago. As it is though they should be able to get over the line in whatever gear they choose. The implications of sauntering as opposed to stomping to the decider can be left for another day.

p.s My reader may be puzzled understandably at the absence of any mention of tactics in the preview. If it is an ommission, as Dublin seek to minimise the gulf between the starting XV's, it's perhaps an indication that the blogger is as tired writing about them as he is viewing hurling matches riddled with them.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Kilkenny v Waterford preview

It's the All-Ireland semi final that dare not speak its name. The number of words expended on covering the game on Friday was as follows: The Irish Times- 28; The Evening Herald- 0. Now whilst both papers are metropolitan affairs, it does to a large extent sum up feeling abroad. Waterford, after being written off summarily ( but not in this parish ) before the Galway game are now suffering the same fate again. The mood of resignation is such that the thought of yet another semi-final defeat only seems to elicit an collective shrug from the Deise faithful. Indeed it is not necessarily an insult to today's underdogs to point out that a bit of forward thinking by the GAA ( no laughing at the back at the notion ) back in the spring might have put the two semis on the same bill as per pre-1997 and ensured a bumper day out. As it is what are we left with: Bar matters such as an opportunity to see sublime young talents such as Tony Kelly on the undercard.

Well with Kilkenny as unquestioned favourites obviously. Their assumed position in the pecking order has veered alarmingly all season. Favourites for the league final despite the heart being sucked out of the team by injury. Now, with Shefflin, Power, Fennelly and Walsh restored, they are unbackable. This despite Wexford cutting a swathe through their full back line, and Dublin being shorn of likely 5 of their most talented 15 when Joey Boland went off early in the Leinster final. Certainly though Kilkenny appear to have a hungry visage from midfield up. Michael Fennelly is on the verge of taking midfield play to new levels after the age of the lar na pairce flyer like Kenny and O'Connor. Their ability to create space and plunder goals against Dublin showed that Enda McEvoy's ( otherwise apposite ) quip that 'Kilkenny murder space, Tipp liberate it' didn't tell the whole story. Brian Cody must also be praised on the leopard spot changing front. The evidence, thus far, of the last two seasons indicates that unleashing blitzkrieg in league matches needlessly is not high on the agenda anymore.

But you could have some grumbles, albeit mostly compared to previous halcyon days. There isn't quite the same interchangeability in the forward line. JJ Delaney has yet to show anywhere near his best form. As for the fullback line, we now have seen, as per Wexford Park, what can be achieved by a three man full forward line keeping decent spacing.

Cody thus is having a decent run of generous opponents. Davy Fitz, like his former team mate Anthony Daly, isn't that inclined to seek the wide open spaces close to an opponents goal. In fairness to the Sixmilebridge man though Peter may have to be burgled to pay Paul. There's much talk in the run up to the game about Waterford needed to eschew tactics and play their neighbours hip to hip and man to man: Likely some of this criticism comes from the same people who will tear strips off the diminutive general if he leaves Liam Lawlor ( as he essentially did in last year's All-Ireland semi ) isolated at the edge of the square. Like with his former captain next week the temptation has to be to shut up shop and let Kilkenny win the game with point scoring out the field if they are good enough.

Doubtless most things need to go right for Waterford. But they will at least compete physically. The notion that Kilkenny blew Dublin away with brawn ( rather than brain ) is balderdash. The Deise will cope in that department, albeit they need Kevin Moran and Shane O'Sullivan to build on the last day. Seamus Prendergast and Eoin Kelly throwing back the years would also be handy. The notion, as postulated by Daithi Regan this week, that Kilkenny have all the brio of yore, whilst Waterford will find it hard to lift it to quarter final levels is, to these ears, curious. Our, possibly brave, punt is that the cats are somewhere between where they were reckoned to be after the league final and where they are deigned to be now. We have a hunch they are beatable by an upwardly mobile outfit, for whom the sliotar runs kindly. A side like we, ( and many other people ) to our shame, imagined Galway could be. Unfortunately Waterford are probably a smidgen short of that level. But they may give supporters a more exciting day out than is being bargained for.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hurling Quarter Final Previews

Dublin v Limerick

First things first: It is of course tough to bluff your way through previews for games, when team sheets aren't available. Even allowing for the calamity that has befallen the Dublin camp in the last 24 hours, one could point out that the 'sons of Ger Loughnane' Anthony Daly and Davy Fitzgerld are only repeating the sins of the father by keeping their cards so close to their chest until match day. Perhaps it's a quaint GAA tradition, ( Alex Ferguson isn't expected to announce who is playing three days before a match ) but also perhaps in this case both managers have very good reasons.

In Daly's case whatever plans and strategies the Clarecastle man had to recover from the Leinster final would have had Conal Keaney at their hub. Perhaps with the former football star being a focus for puck outs, he might have felt himself able to release Ryan O'Dwyer to the edge of the square. In a general tactical sense Dublin's task doesn't necessarily change too much for Sunday. Both sides, are to a certain extent, prisoners of slightly different formula that result in neither getting the ball into the full forward line quickly enough. In fairness to Daly he could at least make the point that he's using the players at his disposal close to their maximum. Whatever the effect of coaching it could never be said that it is the natural game of Dotsie O Callaghan, and to a lesser extent Paul Ryan, to charge towards goal the minute they receive the ball. But however it's achieved Dublin should be alive to getting behind a full back line that, thus far, has shown an over propensity to attack the ball. If Wexford were comfortably defeated in one respect in the qualifiers they were also a goal threat.

Donal O' Grady doesn't have the excuse of cutting cloth. He has at his disposal a goalscoring full forward throwback ( Kevin Downes ) the likes of which we haven't seen in a while. O'Grady apparently was annoyed at his players against Waterford that they didn't get the ball into the young Na Piarsigh star quicker. However one wonders why, on the evidence of the league final, that instruction wasn't drilled into the players in training ad infinitum. One suspects, despite media reportage that treats the Limerick manager almost a deity, that he still hasn't settled on a happy medium for his new side between long ball and possession keeping. In the Wexford match Downes was still rather starved of possession. Plus the talent that Graham Mulcahy evinced that evening would be better exhibited closer to goal rather than trying to pick and run at the physical Dublin side from midfield.

Dublin may still be a mite too intense and physical for the Shannonsiders. David Tracey could now be rushed back and resemble a new signing for the metropolitan project. Earlier in the week we would have mused that their best way to confront the season would be to bite the bullet and decide that Liam Rushe, rather than Joey Boland, is now their first choice centre back. But all bets are now off and Rushe may be firefighting in the half forward line. In the last couple of years this blog sometimes felt that Dublin hurling people pining for Conal Keaney was akin to a deluded flock beseeching for the return of a rusty prophet. This blog was wrong. Keaney's loss, from a work rate standpoint if no other, is almost incalculable. With a physical and solid platform from half back Limerick should have just enough to ride their luck.

Galway v Waterford

As at lunchtime Saturday Davy Fitz hasn't named a Waterford team. Conventional wisdom would relate that he's busy trying to rearrange the metaphorical deckchairs on the Titanic. Desperately trying to expel from Deise minds the ghost of Munster final horrors past. Former players haven't been slow to stick the knife into an outside manager who has made some tactical bloopers in his reign. This blogger was especially frustrated by the siting of John Mullane in a betwixt and between position in the All-Ireland semi in 2009: which made it all the easier for Kilkenny to get bodies on him. The placing of Jerome Maher on Lar Corbett also verged towards the death wish variety, especially since that meant that Brick Walsh was taken out of centre back, but not sited on the edge of the square.

Yet one does wonder though whether many Waterford people are now thrashing around for a scapegoat. If the manager's stratagems havent necessarily used the players at his disposal to the optimum; it could also be reflected upon that he hasn't had adequate replacements for the superstars of recent years in his squad. The preception is currently that Waterford are producing a bountiful crop of young players who are only waiting to be utilised. The fact remains though that, whilst Waterford may have 30 players of a higher standard than they had 10 years ago, you still need a minimum of 12/13 top performers to win an All-Irelands. After all the supporters of Waterford's opponents tomorrow may wryly reflect that Galway struggled depthwise in the late 80's. They had however enough great players to win 2 in a row. Having the B team win matches in training does not necessarily All Ireland contenders make. They may be a clamour for Waterford to make a raft of changes tomorrow. But the difficult truth may be that their best xv includes 12/13 of the Munster final team.

So Waterford may not have much scope to call in obviously superior cavalry. Galway, as this blog surmised a few months ago, may have their best team in years. So an easy win for the Tribesmen:Well not so fast. Displaying the same blind faith for Galway that the media have traded in for years, The Irish Times this morning predicted a Galway masterclass. But to achieve this, one would expect to have a defence that trades in excelling rather than coping. Masterclasses would emanate from backlines who have a full back who does more than play conservatively from behind; or wing backs who could dominate aerially. For Galway a relative master class would be Hayes and Canning putting up enough of a score to win a shoot out. Things seem all of a sudden rosy in the garden, but a day will likely come soon when Farragher at 11 looks a quixotic choice, or Iarla Tannion will get out of bed on the wrong side.

So this blog doesn't see Davy Fitz's little lamb lying down for the second day in a row. They have the physicality and athleticism to match their opponents. Richie Foley could yet get back to the form of last summer and the spring. We expect Brick Walsh and Mullane to lead from the front. Galway's firepower may just be enough to have Waterford carried out on their shield however.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Weekend hurling previews

Limerick v Wexford

The perception is that these sides are coming into the game on different wavelengths. The home team are emboldened by proving themselves to be better than Division 2 no hopers; not that this blog had believed that for a moment. Wexford meanwhile are becalmed after certain people had mistakenly ( again this blog didn't fall for the optimism ) divined that Kilkenny were vulnerable. Both physically and psychologically Wexford will find Limerick much more of a bespoke fit. Their full forward line who showed well for ball in the Leinster semi will fancy their chances, against a Limerick back three still seeming without a natural full back, and prone to indecisiveness. It will be interesting to view Garrett Sinnott again, as much to possibly dispel the slightly bizarre notion that Kilkenny made him look better than he is. Limerick also, rather like Donal O'Grady's former charges, still look betwixt and between a game plan: Whether it's nobler to adhere to O'Grady's tried and trusted tactics, or to get ball in quickly to Kevin Downes, perhaps on this occasion supported by a nippy corner forward or two.

On the flip side Limerick will feel that their 5-9 can get a sufficient foothold in the game. Wexford have changed both midfielders and will hope that Mick Jacob and especially Eoin Quigley will roll back the years. On the other hand they have left unchanged a half forward line that didn't lay a glove on Kilkenny. Gizzy Lyng can't return from travelling soon enough and for this game he has been joined on the unavailable list by Ciaran Kenny, an undervalued cog in Wexford's machine.

Kenny's injury is very frustrating as Wexford can never seem to get their best defenders ( Kenny, Stamp, Rossiter and Roche ) fit and firing. If they were all rearing to go Wexford could easily have squeaked a low scoring game. As it is, unless a Harry Kehoe or a PJ Nolan comes of age, Limerick should have enough to test their incremental progress in another match.

Galway v Clare

What are the bookies up to this week re these counties. We're talking of course of the Clare minors being a slightly loopy 6/4 to win the All-Ireland, when a county with the pedigree at the grade of Galway have still to be sighted. Having said that the pricing for Saturday's qualifier game could also raise eyebrows. A Galway side who barely looked interested in being in Tullamore a fortnight ago are still heavily favoured to advance to the next round. What was most disturbing about the defeat to Dublin on a second viewing was the wanton awfulness of much of the tackling, as if attempting a legal dispossession was far too much bother. If John McIntyre has responded by ringing the changes it is still of a type that will be characterised as moving of deck chairs variety if it all goes wrong. There has been a general welcome accorded to Galway's changes but the formulation still looks a fuzzy gamble. Four of the forwards have to find their form coming back from injury whilst a fifth was in inter county retirement a few months ago. If the tribesmen line out as selected Ger Farragher looks curiously positioned at centre forward, whilst Clare will feel their wing forwards can make aerial bustling hay versus Donal Barry and Adrian Cullinane.

Can Clare take advantage though of rolling dice. They have to cast off the ghosts of qualifier ineptitude the last two summers. This has to be done without Darach Honan who joins his club mate Domhnall O' Donovan on the sidelines. If Honan engages the ire of impatient countymen too readily his absence still potentially diminishes Clare's chances of posting a winning total. At the other end Philip Brennan retains his place despite a performance that unfortunately didn't end Clare's goalkeeping controversy. If the back six in front all performed manfully against Tipp, collectively they need to staunch the bleeding caused by soft goals. Plus some day soon to progress their last 20 ministers will have to match their first twenty.

A prediction of what variations of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde in maroon and saffron show up is tricky. If Galway get to the pitch they exhibited in last years All-Ireland quater final that will presumably suffice. They likely won't but they may fall over the line.

Kilkenny v Dublin

All has changed changed utterly a man from Clann Na Gael Fontenoy's catchment once said. It can be applied to the Leinster final just two months on from the thunder n' lightening League final. Tommy Walsh and Henry Shefflin, the two best players of the last 20 years have returned. Yet even more significantly so have Michael Fennelly and Richie Power. Fennelly-since Brendan Maher will likely be dragooned to wing back for the remainder of the summer- is comfortably the best midfielder in the country. Power is quietly beginning to show an interest in clasping the onerous baton sooner rather than later from Shefflin.

Since then Tomas Brady has joined Stephen Hiney on the Dublon sidelines, whilst David Tracey will not be fit even for a cameo. Plus even though Peter Kelly and Liam Rushe fitted seamlessly into the defensive cockpits against Galway it's hardly likely that they won't encounter bumps on the road on this occasion. It will be fascinating actually whether Anthony Daly now reflects that he has stumbled on his best centre back option ( Rushe ) or whether he reinserts the possibly ring rusty Boland. Another Dublin player to watch is Conor McCormack, who may be required to do even more of the heavy lifting in Ryan O'Dwyer's absence. McCormack evinced an incalculable ability to get up feline noses in the league final, and how perhaps he and the selected centre back go might indicate how Dublin's fortunes will come out in the watch.

For Kilkenny there is also a doubt as to whether they will line up as selected. The full back line, unchanged from the semi final, have got an exceedingly loyal vote of confidence. It could of course be that Paul Murphy will switch in and JJ Delaney out. If Kilkenny go under detractors may signpost the demotion of Paddy Hogan and declare Brian Cody has taken loyalty to unsustainable levels. It also must be pointed out that although lack of proven ability is not seen to be a Kilkenny shortcoming the starting corner forwards Colin Fennelly and Richie Hogan have to prove themselves on this type of stage.

There's a school of thought abroad that everything is set up for Kilkenny. That Cody will have them primed like scalded, er, cats to whiplash the Dubs. But this might be easier screamed about than done. Ultimately, against a team they can't physically intimidate, will Kilkenny have the stomach for a torrid second half fight with their bounty of medals weighing down their back pockets. This blogger doesn't envisage Dublin being dumped in their place. But on this particular day the champs might have one or two more options available and a goal or two might get them over the line.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cork v Offaly

If you were to represent Saturday's match like the Beatles album St. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band what personalities would you have on the cover? Perhaps Kurt Cobain. There was an insipid lacklustre feel to the day's fare, that partly wasn't helped by lack of championship bite emanating from the crowd: Here we are now, entertain us, might as well been the catch cry descending from the stands. Cork's reasonably promising start to the season, allied with their recent superior record against Offaly meant that an air of cosy expectation permeated proceedings. The crowd only seemed to rouse themselves when faithful indiscretion led to baying for referee Johnny Ryan to even up the score after Pa Cronin's sending off.

Perhaps another album standard bearer would be Sean Og O' hAilpin. The former great, now on the outside looking in, recently opined that the GAA should do away with the qualifier system. Whatever the merits and demerits of such a suggestion ( one suspects Sean Og's friends in the GPA would agree with this blogger that it's, at best, a quaint notion ) there's no doubt that a certain bite has gone out of championship fare in comparison to fifteen years ago, a state of affairs that can only be partly put down to the traditional powers reasserting themselves. A prominent player ( from memory, we think Noel McGrath ) recently reflected that many supporters only seem sated when hurling is played at half three on a Sunday afternoon in front of a packed crowd. If it might irk some 'hurling people' to be lumped into a grouping with event junkies, it wouldn't mean there wasn't a ring of truth to it.

And beside Cobain and O'hAilpin perhaps Sigmund Freud. Or some modern incarnation who could peer into the collective noggins and Offaly players and management. It's ironic that under the stewardship of Joe Dooley, who tilted at establishment windmills in two separate Offaly teams, the faithful county have slipped back into over reverence for the Tipperarys and Corks of this world. Last year after running Galway to a photo finish two days in a row, they exited tamely to a Tipp team that were not in the state of dudgeon they would attain in in September. On Saturday both sides played as if the result was pre-ordained, ( stick John Calvin beside Freud perhaps ) only to check the scoreboard at the final whistle to discover the bare minimum separated them. Sure, this was partly due to the slightly freakish late goal, but Offaly had previously wasted enough good chances to win two games.

The strong cross field breeze was devilishly tricky and both times found it difficult to locate the posts with the aid of the elements. But it was still a weapon to be harnessed. Thus James Dempsey decision to try an ill conceived short puck out late in the first half with the wind, ( which led to a Cork point ) was in some respects the match in microcosm. Nine players, all who have played championship for Offaly, either couldn't start, finish or play any part because of injury. Derek Molloy had decamped to the U.S. Yet if Joe Bergin or Shane Dooley had given full vent to their talents, a major shock would have occurred. Perhaps it's their gaits, and it's partly deceptive, but at times you wondered if they were putting in the same shift as lesser lights like Cathal Egan and Ger Healion.

Certainly Cork were also casual. They still don't seem to have a coherent consistent game plan. Paudie O' Sullivan and especially Pat Horgan seem to have lifted their games this year; yet the rebels still seem enamoured of a short passing game they no longer have the legs for. Because William Egan fluffed his lines, Cronin is suspended and Lorcan McLoughlin may still be injured, it's conceivable that 6,8 and 9 for the next day could once again, for good or ill, be Curran, Kenny and Jerry O' Connor. After scoring an excellent early goal Cian McCarthy then did little to reinforce his manager's trust. But for Cork it may be two steps forward and one step back, and the next day, properly tuned in, they may once again flash the potential they showed against Tipp.

For Offaly the barren seasons and the mental scars are adding up. With the vagaries of depression Ireland who knows what players will be available facing into Division2 next spring. Plus Offaly hurling is always raging against the light of a small pick. The under 21's from midfield up against Dublin last Thursday were desperately poor. Yet a point could be made that the best xv available can be making All-Ireland semi finals. On Saturday we saw what a clean striking athlete Dylan Hayden is. Daniel Currams also flashed his potential. Former Offaly manager Michael Bond once said that his charges had great minds. Some sort of transfusion of belief from players of the past is sorely needed now. It perhaps wasn't coincidental that their manager mused afterwards that Kilkenny, Tipp and Cork are the three best teams in the championship.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Whither the advantages of playing in Division One..

after last weekend's games. In the media before last Saturday's match Wexford centre back Darren Stamp made the point forcibly that his side had been unburdened by getting out of Division Two. One presumed that, in the clash with Kilkenny, we would see the fruits of a spring played in the top flight. But ultimately just as last summer Wexford were a long way inferior to one of the giants of the game. The optimum spring preparation hadn't led to they being any more prepared to take on Kilkenny in the crucial middle area of the field, especially physically.

The analysis of Limerick's display on Sunday by two thirds of Clare's 1990's management was also fascinating. Virtually every individual error made by the Shannonsider's against Waterford was down to Limerick being in the lower division according to Ger Loughnane. Tony Considine felt that their first half display betrayed a lack of intensity due to the purdah of Division 2. But oddly, it was in the later stages of their first games last year that Clare and Wexford ( who had played in the 2010 Division 2 final ) faded out: Whilst another team from outside the top level Antrim came on like a house on fire against Dublin in their qualifier match.

This blogger doesn't believe that a lack of exposure to the top grade of league hurling is ideal. Certainly not year after year, and it would be very deleterious to a seasoned team. But the value of much of the hurling exhibited in February and March can be taken with a decent pinch of salt. The convenience of which teams are in which divisions has become an excuse for much lazy analysis. Almost the biggest problem an inter county hurler has regarding playing in Division Two, will be every pundit around telling him what an impediment it is.

In fairness to Wexford what little chance there was for an ambush was gone before the first whistle. Allied with the absence of Gizzy Lyng they had to ship the loss of Darren Stamp before throw in: With the subsequent injury to Ciaran Kenny they thus had to play most of the match without three of the best handful of players in the county. Not to mind that the number of centre backs they got through, from the selection on the programme to half time, was a staggering four. One would also harbour doubts whether Paul Roche was 100% fit, although he battled manfully.

If they have Stamp, Kenny and Richie Keogh available Wexford's defence will be stout in the qualifiers. But midfield and half forward are sore areas of concern. In the full forward line Rory Jacob's performance was in essence a career in microcosm. Undervalued, especially as a ball winner, by many in his own county, the Oulart man's finishing and decision making are just below top class and these deficiencies made Kilkenny's job easier.

The wheels were never as likely to fall off the Kilkenny wagon like some feared/hoped post league final. Ultimately they are now reasonably mortal and would always struggle to stave off a ravenous Dublin without six of their All-Ireland team. The insertion of Michael Fennelly and Richie Power had a decided and dramatic effect. Michael Rice showed why he was so unlucky not to start last year's showpiece. Plus a game plugger from Ballyhale gave a good shift and took his frees well.

Much has been made about the miles on Kilkenny's gage, and although this is an issue, six of the fine under 21 team from 2008 featured on Saturday night, and these along with Fennelly, Rice and Power provide an very decent corp. Perhaps significantly though none of these players were in last Saturday's full back line. Perhaps nowhere on the field is there such a premium of desire and maybe the cats need an infusion in the full back line of players less sated by success. There are the options of the returning John Dalton and the re-siting of Paul Murphy. But an improvement may be needed in the full back line against either Dublin or Galway; both of whom being also better equipped to rumble with Brian Cody's side in other area's of the field.

Physicality, unlike in Wexford Park, wasn't an issue in Thurles last Sunday. Neither, as this blog suspected last week, was the gulf between the divisions expressed on the field. But curiously, to these eyes, the media haven't made any issue of the possession game Donal O'Grady has brought to the party. This was perhaps partly down to the excellent goal scored by wing back Wayne McNamara. But this parish is relatively suspicious of the idea that a square peg should always be used even if you haven't the likes of the O'Connor twins and Tom Kenny to supplement your strategy. Limerick ended up bringing both corner forwards out the field to best effect their tactics. But this left them with a two man full forward line, one of whom, Richie McCarthy, appearing ill at ease. Although the plan was perhaps partly to create space for young phenom Kevin Downes, a more cohesive attacking strategy is maybe required. Rather like Rory Jacob in Wexford some Limerick fans are best to take the rough with the smooth when it comes to Niall Moran. Despite all the wides he provided a foothold in the half forward line Limerick feared they wouldn't have.

As the half back line and midfield were uber valiant ( Paul Browne had a storming second half ) it was in front of their own goal that there are most worries. Damien Reale appears to have lost a step: Similarly to what we saw on Saturday night corner back can be a cruel mistress when you've gone often to the well. Seamus Hickey looked ill at ease to Reale's left, whilst Tom Condon's risk and reward performance was in keeping with the results of Limerick's possession tactics. Some have called for the return of Stephen Lucy to the full back pivot, but it must be remembered that it's four years since we've seen stellar form from him. All told though a chastened Dublin or Galway would find a possible away tie in the Gaelic Grounds an acid test for damaged morale.

Although he dost protest too much on the topic, Davy Fitz is entitled to be cheered that his side continued their propensity to eek out close wins against equals or inferiors. The emerging young talent was a real boon. There has been plenty of talk all season about Paudie Mahoney and Daragh Fives, but Brian O' Sullivan looks like the complementary corner forward John Mullane has been crying out for. His older brother David was also unawed by his late call up, albeit that Richie Foley has quietly become an important player for Waterford and was missed. Maurice Shanahan will also be perhaps fitter by Munster final time, but the Deise need the Lismore youngster to start delivering 70 minute performances. On the flip side ten years on from his last game ( where in fairness Limerick, and Brian Begley exposed his venerability ) Sean Cullinane still hasn't been next or near replaced at full back.

Denis Walsh pointed out in the Sunday Times last weekend how the Dublin v Galway match is not like a regular provincial semi-final. For Dublin defeat would be a crucial loss of momentum. For Galway it will not just rear up memories of 'same ol' same ol', it will also set off alarm bells for the John McIntyre regime. There has been much mention of the absense of Gerry Farragher and Iarla Tannion due to injury. But the former's class from placed balls are compensated by having one Joe Canning in the same team. Plus Tannion has not yet shown a propensity to be relied upon in a pinch. Of more consequence to Galway is how undercooked or otherwise the aforementioned Canning and Shane Kavanagh will be. Although not a natural full back Kavanagh husbanded his resources well last summer and his apparent siting at wing back is perhaps an indication of lack of well being. The team will maybe also be inconvenienced by David Collins's consequent siting at the edge of the square. Up front the demotion of Andy Smyth is noteworthy as he had become one of the soldiers John Mac had most relied upon in his regime. Adrian Cullinane and Aengus Callinan can be easily confused but these mobile and versatile hurlers need to showcase their undoubted talents in such a gut check game.

For Dublin the return of Tomas Brady is leavened by Joey Boland being a continuing absentee. That apart they appear raring to go and will at the very least provide the type of exacting physical challenge that Galway have struggled with in the past. The slight surprise is the promotion of Peader Carton from the recent role of squad player. The continuing absence of David Treacy from the first xv will be an irritant if his convalescence continues much longer. In the other attacking corner it's an important game for Paul Ryan who needs to come to the summer party.

This blogger recently told a Galwegian friend that he expected the most persuasive summer challenge from the Tribsmen since 1990. It was a prediction that led to a puzzled look. The stab in the dark has to be understood in the context of how relatively far Galway, despite abundant hype, have been from All-Ireland success in virtually all of the last twenty years. The early season tea leaves don't look promising. Dublin might be a bit more 'ullamh' on Saturday night. The result won't necessarily be the same though if the sides clash again later in the summer.

Ger O' Loughlin will have plenty of ammunition to pin up on the Clare dressing room wall on Sunday. Pundits haven't even been especially careful when outlining the task Waterford will have against Tipperary in the Munster final. Tipperary manager Declan Ryan, almost inconceivably, commented that Clare will present a physical challenge on Sunday. Perhaps a sign of a deep content on the Tipp side as Ryan, perhaps dredging his soul in order to talk up his opponents, ending up engaging in a patronising not to say, out-dated cliche.

The reality is Clare would kill to be able to bring a more physical ooomph to the party. Plus if Tipp are complacent, there are very few in Clare who would feel they are taking liberties. Put baldly the Banner appear to be in a mess. The League final showed the frailties down the spine of their defence. Add to that, of the four best Clare players in the league, Donal O' Donovan is out injured, Brendan Bugler has been curiously discarded and Nicky O' Connell is apparently battling a chest infection. Plus Clare's x factor Darach Honan has been named despite barely training in recent months. They have named three debutantes Pat O'Connor, Cathal McInerney and Conor McGrath all of whom are still under 21 in 2012. But in the case of McInerney he didn't yet appear to be near this level in the league.

Tipp they are currently basking in media adulation after the Cork game. Despite the continued absence of Brendan Maher it is understandable from 8-15 that they are being fawned upon in this manner. If they are tuned in they may cause Clare the type of grievous bodily harm witnessed at the same venue in the 1993 Munster final. But there hasn't perhaps been enough comment that if they keep defending as they did against Cork they may have to continue winning out and out shoot outs. Sunday's defensive incarnation has John O'Keeffe sited in the unfamiliar territory of corner back, and the lightweight David Young retained. Clare may feel that the doughty pair of John Conlon and Fergal Lynch could do damage against Tipp's half line if they avoid Paudie Maher's patch. On their displays against Cork Paul Curran and Michael Cahill shouldn't fall prey to complacency but perhaps their places aren't under the threat they would be in an ideal world.

But there appear to be far too many chinks in the Clare armour for all these matters to be a concern for those other than handicap betters. The bookies have Tipp as eight point favourites. Since Clare, especially with an interrupted preparation, certainly don't look the equal of Cork the premier look a very bettable proposition. The irony of Clare's keening desire to be in Division One of the league is that many of their supporters may have fancied playing a less distinguished top flight team first out in the championship.