Friday, May 30, 2008

Clare v Waterford preview

Mike McNamara, whether he was a prime mover in it or not, once operated in a hurling context where perceived slights were seized upon. If he read some of the championship previews judging his charges hopes he might be inclined to pin articles on the dressing room wall, and slip into full Canon Michael O' Brien "donkeys for derby's mode". The Sunday Tribune was particularly uncharitable, it's hurling correspondent rating Clare beneath Wexford, and another journalist railing against McNamara for his antediluvian training methods. The redoubtable Sean Moran in the Irish Times slipped into generic cliche by terming the Banner county to be "in transition". Too often this term is used in politically correct terms to describe an outfit that is perceived to be not much cop, and with Clare naming only one player spending his first season on the panel, and with no u-21 anywhere near the starting fifteen, there is a patronising whiff in the air.

But this imagining of Clare still existing in an established patterns also exists amongst their supporters. Talk amongst them usually focuses on the malaise in the forwards, with an eye constantly fixed on the sky looking for a sign as to the arrival of the next James O' Connor. Conversely there is a curious "it will be all right on the night" attitude towards the sides backs, due to years of living on the fatted calf. This complacency seems to have infected the management. It's a little reported fact that two men who played corner back in last years championship Kevin Dilleen and Anthony Kilmartin are not involved this summer. The Clare selectors seemed confident that Tadgh Keogh would cut the mustard and didn't try any other players in the position, bar the ill-fated Conor McMahon, in the spring. But subsequent challenge matches have put the selectors off the Sixmilebridge man and Daragh Clancy, with no apparent corner back experience, has been dragooned into the position. In the half-line Conor Plunkett so long the dauphin to Seanie McMahon has been informed his time has come, a promotion that seems less logical and more ripe for disappointment than five years ago. On his right Pat Donnellan, hopefully not too chastened by having virtually all the media spell his name wrong throughout the league, will have to overcome the suspicion formed from his county u-21 career, that he is more a ball player in the Paul Kelly mode than a granite hewn championship wing back that Clare need. If Dan Shanahan and Seamus Prendergast have shaken off injury, and in the case of the former sonamblulent league form, we'll have a much better idea about the reasoning behind Gerry Quinn's omission, on Sunday night.

The saffron and blue selection has a wing and a prayer element to it in attack for different reasons. Tony Griffin and Diarmuid McMahon are only back in the country for just over a month, albeit they are reported to be in good physical shape. Tony Carmody has had very little spring hurling after a serious injury. Niall Gilligan and Jonathan Clancy have both suffered mild concussions in recent weeks. But with Declan O'Rourke invalided and Fergal Lynch and Barry Nugent failing to secure the trust of yet another management team, Clare are hoping that class ( yes there is plenty of it, despite urban legend ) will overcome the respective infirmities. One bugbear, the lack of a quality freetaker may have been treated by Mark Flaharty's inclusion. Another, the lack of goal power is, judging on the league and challenges still a sore point.

The comfort for Clare is that their undercooked forwards are facing underpowered Deise backs. Eoin Murphy, perhaps on the advice of a frustrated agent, attempted in the winter through a celebrity dancing show to raise his public profile. His worth may be more apparent on Sunday night, much to the chagrin of Waterford's supporters, if their Munster hopes have gone south. His direct replacement Declan Prendergast, although more suited to corner back than full, will likely mark the aforementioned Flaherty, and Clare's debutant might have faced a harder introduction to championship. The absence of Ken McGrath doesn't need to be dallied on the for too long. One thing Waterford could take from the league q/f defeat to Tipperary was how calm and authoritative Kevin Moran seemed in a the problem position of full back. And of course the injury worries aside- which prevent Eoin Kelly from starting- there is the suspicion that Waterford's forwards have too much heavy artillery for their opposite numbers. Bar the debutant dual player Gary Hurney, it is instructive that the most unheralded amongst them include the All- Star Stephen Molumphey, and the oft undervalued Eoin McGrath.

Clare could improve markedly later in the summer. This would be ironic considering managements desire to take the Munster Championship ultra-seriously, forsaking the policy of the Anthony Daly era. Their saving grace could be that their ill-preparedness due to events seems to be aped by Waterford. Indeed its possible that Clare might have more fight for a contest that may be prosaic for Waterford with their eyes on a much bigger prize. However despite the absentees, Waterford's xv still seems to have a smidgen more talent, and though the draw might be tempting for serious punters, the Deise are still the better bet.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Seafarers and Landlubbers in Port Lousy

There was a moment in Portlaoise yesterday when the scoreboard was in transit. Like Irish Rail ( unfortunate timing for the metaphor ) it wasn't there yet, but getting there. Thus it had Dublin and Offaly lined up against each other. That pairing might have brought an agreeable tussle on a day where the harsh Darwinian world of the Leinster championship was shown to full effect. As Declan Ruth astutely pointed out on The Sunday Game we now have three levels in the province. Ten years ago Laois, bereft of luck, were pipped at the post in a Leinster semi final by Kilkenny. In the other semi Offaly and Wexford served up fare that was of true national import. This bloggers weekend started with a trip to the Abbey to see Conor McPherson's excellent Tony nominated play The Seafarers. Like the Leinster Championship it deals with a group of people who have been cut adrift from the sheen of Celtic Tiger Ireland. Indeed it came to mind at a point yesterday that the decision of R.T.E to show the Offaly Laois (no) contest was a cunning strategy suggested by the Hurling Development Commitee to undermine the county's automatic right to a Leinster place. And whilst there is a sinister side to the authorities desire to prop up, in the Munster Championship, the biggest sacred cow this side of Veranasi, serious questions have to asked about the level at which Laois are currently competing. The sad thing is that they currently have the ammunition to run Offaly close for seventy minutes as opposed to fifteen. Canice Coonan's silky probings could have been in a half back line buttressed by Matthew Whelan and Mick McEvoy. Willie Hyland, who built on the good impression shown in the Fitzgibbon Cup final, could under other circumstances have sought succour in the talants of James Young and Zane Kennan. But Laois don't live in a world where untimely injuries, player disenchantment and the attractions of the football panel leave them unscathed. In their quieter moments Brian Campion, James Walsh and Noel Costello might take comfort from their personal performances, but to be downed so tamely by as utilitarian an outfit as Offaly leaves a jarring taste. A quiz in the match programme referred to surely the most exotically named All-Ireland captain ever; Laois's 1949 leader Paddy Rustchitzo. Maybe a plus side of the aforementioned tiger might be that other former sons from beyond the Iron Curtain could come to the embattled hurling territories of south and west Laois.

As comprehensive a victory as the Faithful garnered leads to nice words being mouthed in the press about their progress. But without knowing what the points spread will be in their Leinster semi, it doesn't seem an attractive betting proposition. David Kenny, fifteen months or so after playing at corner forward in an All-Ireland for N.U.I.G, is finding full back a test for even his undoubted versatility. Although both midfielders were namechecked by R.T.E's nightime panel, to this bloggers eyes Laois's pairing comfortably pucked more ball. Yesterday, with the raw- boned Paul Cleary and Ger Healion in the central attacking positions, was obviously a roadtest for a future rattling of Kilkenny ramparts, but attempting to huff and puff the cats door down is usually a less profitable task than trying to run around them and fly through the catflap (ouch).

Shane Dooley showed enough in his cameo to suggest that his father might havebeen too sheepish by keeping him in reserve, and Brain Carroll evinced the skill that we all too often only see where there isn't an adhesive corner back in his patch. But whilst Rory Hannify's return will be a boon you suspect he would need to turn up with the some of of his older brother Gary's teammates from the dawn of the economic miracle to turn Kilkenny heads.

The most likely players on display yesterday to garner senior All-Ireland medals were in Dublin shirts. Mind you Sean Og O' Callachains prediction that that triumph could come next year can be safely put down to the enthusiasm of venerability. Despite Kevin Flynn fine performance yesterday, the lack of any top class player over the age of 25, means that incremental improvement will be the order of the day for the next few years. But it's a measure of their obvious potential that the insouciant scoretaking, even when other aspects of their game was patchy, didn't even jump out particularly. It irks some supporters that there were, even in these bountiful underage days, three auslanders in the starting fifteen, but the tribesmen Niall Corcoran and Declan Qualter, the former in the problem position of corner back, may be culled for the Wexford tie. Managements fallout with such an adroit and versatile performer as Alan McCrabbe is grating, but his absence can at least be cancelled by the return of the prodigal son David O' Callaghan. Those looking at the bare facts of the 1-5 from played posted by the football refugee, might carp that he made hay in favourable surroundings. But actually Westmeath's corner backs, who both shaped up to him, were at worst the second best combination on display on the day. Earlier David Franks had been his usual steady eddie at no. 2 for Offaly, and O'Callaghan's very welcome return to the hurling championship after four years dredged up memories of his dismantling of Franks at headquarters in a losing cause in 2004. For Westmeath the honest toil of the likes of Darren McCormack, Greg Gavin and Pat Clarke, not to mention the mercurial Brendan Murtagh, were undone by three late soft goals. Two of them could be attributed to goalkeeper Mark Briody. The Westmeath custodian, in his helmeted attire, signposted us to the future only two years hence, when net-minders will have to put up with this, frankly anti-totemic appendage ( will Damien Fitzhenry, quite literally wear it ) Nicky Brennan wants players to discard the helmets in the parades so we can, for a brief moment at least, appraise hairstyles. We are used to Ger Oakley's "eighteen till I die" ponytail, but his younger teammate Diarmuid Horan's ginger afro, redolent of former Northern Ireland international of the late 70's Jimmy Nicholl, was a previously undiscovered delight, on a blustery day on the heath, where given everything you half expected to see King Lear.

Postcript: The bastardisation of Port Laoise in the title comes from the apparent pronounciation of an American tourist, as reported in a letter to the Irish Times.

The latest in the long line of very competitive displays by the Laois U-21's midweek shoes that considering their small resources there is plenty of raw material to work with.