Friday, July 25, 2008

Who fears to compare to '98!

One of the most abused phrases in the G.A.A is that a a team is on its last chance. Beloved of the cliche brigade its a cast iron maxim, that as often as not tends to fall around the ears of those who preach it. Armagh tended to fall victim to its use in football; and yet here we are in 2008 with half of their All-Ireland winning team gone by the wayside and they remain perennial contenders. Funnily enough the Cork hurlers look more likely unwilling recipients of the tag. Sated slightly by the garnering of two hurling championships, they looked earlier in the season to be between a rock and the hard place of finding a new full back and other reinforcements. This side more than perhaps any other in the recent history of the game, forged as it was in the white heat of labour unrest in the winter of discontent five and a half years ago, has a unique Muskateeresque unity amongst its charges. Thus perhaps it was not surprising in retrospect that the infusion of new blood against Tipperary did not have the desired effect, akin to a body rejecting the wrong blood type. The convalescent ward that was the qualifier against Dublin didn't indicate that a complete recovery was in the offing, with only John Gardiner coming up to former scratch. This column hasn't anything particularly original to add to much of what has been written about their wondrous second half defiance on Donal Og Cusacks behalf last Saturday. Suffice it to say that Clare will hope that Corks championship graph in 2007/08 will continue to mirror their own of 1998/99, when the team was on occasion driven to fury by the temerity of other sides and disciplinary bodies, but couldn't sustain the ire over a whole season. This rebel collection has dazzled us with their feats in the past, not the least of which was winning titles with meagre enough resources of loaves and fishes in the forward line. But to produce another top notch display within a week of fighting for their lives on their backs, would match anything elicited in mid decade. It could be though that they don't need to hit those heights. It also shouldn't be forgotten just what important additions Shane O'Neill and Cathal Naughton have been to the package. To O'Neill's left Diarmuid O'Sullivan has been to the surprise of many restored to his full back berth. Considering he appeared unfit inside ten minutes of the Munster semi-final, the Cork managements loyalty to the Cloyne man seems almost touching. Yet with Tony Griffin seemingly afflicted by a combination of rustiness and dodgy hamstrings it could be Clare haven't the ammunition to expose O'Sullivan.

Having said that Clare will be fielding their strongest side of the summer. Mike McNamara having had to replace Conor Plunkett and Mark Flaharty two games in a row has eschewed the loyalty to both which has been a trademark until now. Gerry Quinn is back in harness and after a few years of being on the fringes Pat Vaughan has found an heretofore unlikely home at corner back. There are many in the county who ,despite the magnitude of the game, would like a new non-Lohan era at full back to begin on Sunday. But since the Scariff trainer didn't experiment in this position in the spring, Frank Lohan's uncertain manning of the square will continue for one more match at least. Clare will also be boosted by a level of midfield play that they likely haven't seen since the heady and incendiary days of '98. The fact that Colin Lynch doesn't show much signs of the intervening ten years is practically a miracle of modern science and almost overshadows his partner Brian O'Connell's new found consistency. Clare's forwards have had a few long nights of the soul since the Munster final. It is perhaps indicative of their status as a combination with a mite too few chiefs amongst plentiful worthy Indians that the good press they earned pre -munster final was franked with an underwhelming display. The last time they were talked up to this extent was prior to the first round Munster game against Sunday's opposition in 2006 when they also underachieved. The two Tony's and Diarmuid Mcmahon all played reasonably well against Cork in the semi-final in 2005 before fading in the last 25 minutes. But a repeat of that form on Sunday would likely be enough. Ultimately though after pricking the balloon of cliche earlier in the article, the ghost of Semple Stadium comes whispering into mind. When Clare beat Cork four times in a row in the 90's all bar one victory was achieved away from the home of hurling. If Cork mightn't have the same motivation to push themselves over a winning line eight days on, the very comfortable surroundings of Thurles may do the needful.

Having what Montgomery Burns would call "one of my unpredictable changes of heart" this column does however believe that this will be Waterford's last chance for a few years to win the All-Ireland. However it will take a mid-summer revival of the type that Michael Bond engineered ten years ago in Offaly by Davy Fitzgerald to bring Waterford to a level where the last big chance isn't already gone. Those who collate phrase books have probably scurried in recent weeks to include Ken McGrath's siting at full back as the most apposite example of the "robbing Peter to pay Paul phenomenon". If the Deise make a semi final and Aidan Kearney returns to the prime of his health it will be interesting to see if the experiment continues. If Davy is still in two minds the respective displays of Declan Prendergast and Shane O'Sullivan at corner and wing back tomorrow will be instructive. Waterford do look stronger on paper with the strange omissions of Brian Phelan and Stephen Molumphy being reversed. Also Seamus Prendergast seemed to be playing his way into form in last weeks second half. However when you compare the form of the aforementioned Molumphy, Brick Walsh and obviously Dan Shanahan with last year, its obvious the road that still has to be travelled. The burden will obviously need to be lifted off Eoin Kelly and John Mullane given their mercurial natures. The pair could however have another day in the sun given that Wexford's full back line are very unsettled this year due to injuries and form. Doc O' Connor has been dragooned into service at full back, on the published side at least, but this leads to Colin Farrell lining out at wing-back, a position in which he has no inter-county experience. It's surprising considering that he has been physically fit for a month or so that Barry Lambert, arguably hurlings most improved player in 2007, hasn't made the starting line-up. Wexford certainly have enough skillful players in Quigley, Lyng, P.J Nolan, Doyle and the undervalued Rory Jacob to produce a display to best an underpowered Waterford. But injury has blighted John Meyler's summer and there is likely too much sticking plaster in the Wexford configuration to overcome the recuperating Waterford.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Weekend Previews

One of the interesting aspects about the late spring prognostications in the media was not the perceived gap between Kilkenny and the likes of Clare and Wexford, but rather by dint of the favourable press coverage for Tipperary and Galway, the apparent divide between the league finalists and their benighted banner and slaney cousins. Yet Clare and Wexford vanquished Galway and Tipperary respectively in last years championship. Although recent history suggests that that a progressive league leads to Tipp being in rude health come the championship, are we in danger of overegging the spring pudding. After all the last time the Premier county emerged from an all singing and dancing league decider in 2003, they were a pallid concoction when they faced Clare in the Munster quarter final. Similarly have Clare presented an utterly different visage than could reasonably be expected in the two games so far. Undoubtedly, and this shows how superficial much hurling commentary can be, not enough account was taken of the absences of Tony Griffin and Tony Carmody for Clare's travails last year. Thus considering their return the prognosis was certainly too bleak. It is a boon to Clare's chances that Ballyea mans hamstring issues have cleared up, as it was hard to see them eeking out another result without a sizeable contribution from that quarter. If Griffin plays at right corner his physical presence may ask searching and different questions of Conor O'Brien, who showed undoubted promise against Cork. In the other corner Mark Flaharty could blame a hand injury for his form against Limerick, whilst Eamonn Buckley has evinced more persuasive form this year, but you suspect the the stock price of one or the other could take a major dent on Sunday. Further out Jonathan Clancy may seek to frank his best championship display in saffron and blue by exposing Shane Maher's maneuverability. This could be an even bigger issue if the Burgess man is not flanked by Conor O' Mahoney. The presence of Declan Fanning on the bench should not of be that much comfort for Tipperary as the seriously up and coming centre back would be a sizeable loss.

This blogger has noticed that he often hasn't signposted hostilities at mid-field as crucial to a result, but this doesn't apply on Sunday. Shane McGrath has been signposted as the coming exemplar of the thoroughly modern midfielder, whilst Brian O' Connell has perhaps had the mockers put on him with all the award giving that has been bestowed on him this week. Something may have to give. O'Connell will likely play a more stationary role than McGrath, by bolstering his half back line. That trio may be in need of some protection as there is a suspicion that Conor Plunkett and Pat Donnellan haven't yet been truly tested in the white heat. Indeed given Gerry O' Grady's apparent ongoing fitness concerns, there are valid questions of differing kinds regarding all of Clare's backs ( a far cry from their sextet in the last final between the counties in 1997 ) and Brendan Bugler's trifling misdemeanour at the fag end of the semi-final could be very costly. What might exacerbate the concerns is the feeling that Tipperary are inching towards a more balanced forward line with John O'Brien apparently back in form and Seamus Butler back in more familiar environs at corner forward. Furthermore do Clare have a plan for Lar Corbetts wanderlust that involves Frank Lohan?

Tipp have generally been talked up too much, e.g whispers of their possession of the best backline in the country, despite three of them being relatively unproven in the summer. Perhaps this comes with the territory when you are one of the "big three", a grouping that they may still be a part of due to the unswavering hubris of their supporters. A combined xv of both sides on anfearrua lead to many posters plumping for rookie Seamus Callinan at 11, decision making that may have had Diarmuid McMahon rolling his eyes. Yet there remains the nagging feeling that Clare will be fortunate to have defensive uncertainty not punished by Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett. Ultimately if O'Grady, Griffin and O'Mahoney are all in reasonable order, Tipp seem very marginally the safer bet.

Re Saturday nights fare, with Gerald McCarthy reverted to tried and trusted, and dare one say it stodgy, upfront, and Sean Og and Ronan Curran on the bench, Cork could be vulnerable to an up and coming formulation. The pity is that they wont be facing Dublin circa 2011 in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Keeping on the stodgy theme, Wayne McNamara's summer bow doesn't appear to be enough change to be confident that Limerick will come up trumps on Saturday week. As it is though an Offaly team most notable for having the sons of four All-Ireland winners in the starting xv, will likely be five or six points inferior.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

It's Groundhog Day.... Again

With the amount of hot air circulating around the hurling firmament in the last few days you'd swear the Montgolfier brothers were about the place. Another Leinster year over and hurling is apparently even deeper in debt. Galway, like the gadfly batchelor, are being asked once more to focus their mind and settle down with their eastern neighbours. About the only thing we have been spared is the "will someone please think of the children" catchcry. No amount of hyperbole has been spared in the p.r campaign. This blogger's former classmate the normally extremely clear headed James ( we never called him Jamesie ) O' Connor opined that a Kilkenny v Galway clash last Sunday would have brought 50,000 to headquarters. Granted the novelty and the very powerful Joe Canning hype may have brought a very decent crowd, but it would likely be nowhere near equalled in years two and three of the experiment. It may have been quickly forgotten that the meeting of the two sides in last years quarter final attracted only 40,000 to Croker; as part of a double header with Tipperary and Wexford. And ultimately for the switch to be effective there is the small matter of Galway's competitiveness. The way some talk about hurling realignment a force akin to the Rackard brothers Wexford of the 1950's is waiting in the wings to rattle Kilkenny's cages. We heard a lot last Sunday about hurling being a 70 minute game and the harsh reality is that three of the last four four times the counties have met in championship the tribesmen have been uncompetitive over the full duration of the game.

This isn't a carping cut at Galway ( we'll leave that for later in the summer when it all goes wrong and we'll hear the cry of where have all the minors gone ) rather a sober realisation of where we are. It's got to the stage where you half expect to see Bill Murray roundabouts the day after the Leinster final. There's more waling than at a banshee convention and sizable amounts of Wexford people questioning the manhood of their players, and wondering was it for this Vinegar Hill was fought. But didn't we have the same, only more trenchant, last July 1st only for Wexford to subsequently beat Tipperary whilst missing a hatful of goal chances in the process. Kilkenny meanwhile went on, either side of dispatching the Slaneysiders again, to vanquish Galway and Limerick without a blow scarcely being landed. But no lessons seem to have been learned. Wexford played a smattering of superb hurling last Sunday only to succumb when Eddie Brennan scored, extolling very different virtues, two truly brilliant goals. If the Wexford being intimidated by the black and amber theory can't be entirely dismissed, surely any county finding themselves ten points down after making a very decent fist of it, could be entitled to sidle every so surely towards disillusionment. Wexford's quarter final outing, particularly if the injuries to Keith Rossiter, Paul Roche and Stephen Nolan clear up will be fascinatingly instructive. If they are ultra competitive it could be time to start proceeding towards some unsettling conclusions. Like the tipping up of the Premier and Galway as serious threats to Kilkenny being the trumph of hope over empirical evidence. One of the more salient points in the whole talk show roundabout was that by a gentleman texter who wondered whether there would be as much concern if Kilkenny weren't as good. We may indeed need to begin edging towards the previously unthinkable idea that the cats are actually now underrated. Maybe there will be progress and by the next groundhog day we'll see the shadow of Kilkenny for what it actually is. Possibly by then we'll begin advocating some alternative ideas to improve the competitiveness of the sport. Like dividing Kilkenny in two or forcing those of their players suitably endowed, to ply their trade with the county's footballers.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

bald counties and a comb?

Clare and Limerick people often don't have a high opinion of their own. This blogger remembers reading a teacher on the Limerick/Tipperary border recounting how you could easily spot from where the players under his instruction hailed due to their gait. Thus your correspondent received texts on the night of the semi-final from both sides of the divide bemoaning the quality of the fare. Certainly there was a relative torper to the proceedings. But that could partly be expalined by the venue. In a week where the Leinster Council have admitted that a home and away arrangement for Kilkenny and Wexford is close at hand, it's good to reflect on the error of bringing Limerick and Clare to the half filled surroundings of Thurles. One would hope, with some in Galway and Antrim earnestly wanting new homes, that those who fix Clare and Waterford in Limerick, and Limerick and Clare in Thurles would find themselves, partly as a result of their machinations, out of business, leading us to gaze on the sunny uplands of an open draw championship, but that's a battle for another day.

Supporters filing home could have been accentuating the positive. Shannonsiders may have gaped in wonder at the accuracy of their maligned forwards who barely forsook a scoring proposition. Emblematic of this negativity is the almost collective shrugging of shoulders that greeted Niall Moran's five points from play. One would have thought that Limerick's attack had down the years featured enough rambunctious, but limited, types that a wan talent like Moran's could be appreciated. But for many supporters, and indeed the management, the glass seems permanently half full. Seanie O' Connor also faced the ire of the selectors and the faithful. The ridiculous decision of referee Eamonn Morris not to award the gangly full forward a free mid-way through the second half was symptomatic of his fortune on a day when the vagaries of the wind ( which irked all the players with it's swirl resulted in the sliotar having all the predictability of a beach ball ) didn't allow the ball to land around the square, a patch of ground where he had so discomforted Frank Lohan in March's league game. But this is not to gloss over the fact that the beaten All-Ireland finalists formulation could do with freshening up. Although no one ran riot under Paudie O' Dwyer's watch, it's now almost touching to see how eagerly supporters await the return of Brian Geary, given his under appreciation down the years. Worryingly though the likes of the unfortunate Denis Molony, Wayne McNamara and Conor Fitzgerald ( long absence has made the hearts of supporters forgetful ) mightn't be ready for action that soon, with the probable d-day ( with respect to Offaly ) against Galway or Waterford only three weeks away. Another area of concern is the form of Stephen Lucey since his display last week brought to mind similar hesitancy's against the aforementioned tribsmen and Cork in the spring.

As for Clare they got four goals, which is something that bears repeating. And if at least two of them will be remembered for the keystone kop impersonations of Limerick players, a viewing of the tape shows that the build up play for the fourth major was almost as impressive as that for Niall Gilligan's vaunted effort against Waterford. Initiated by Brendan Buglar impressively extricating himself from a tight corner that he sadly he won't be in for the Munster final, featuring a typically velveteen first touch by Barry Nugent, and franked by Diarmuid McMahon's undervalued nose for a goal, it was as noteworthy as the scruffy efforts that proceeded it. The goals got Clare out of gaol ( a nice headline in itself ) after they failed to settle in the first fifteen minutes, often a fatal error with a gale, however capricious, at ones back. One of the players that was on his game from the start was Pat Vaughan. We may not yet have the ocular proof that he is a championship corner back, but he evinced a sprightliness that one likes to see at this time of the year, resembling a top of the ground horse who wasn't discommoded by yielding conditions. Brian O' Connell and the ageless Colin Lynch's trojan work at midfield have allowed Jonathan Clancy's ever-ready bunny impersonation to be exhibited further up the field, where Niall Gilligan matched his more diminutive team-mates work rate, particularly when the hard yards were required in the second half. The huge negative though is Tony Griffin's hamstring, especially since his recent Clare People interview signposted the recurring issues he had with it throughout the spring.

There are perhaps less reasons to avoid the negative when assessing the future prospects of Wexford and Dublin after their semi-final replay. Wexford last year took two facile beatings from their Noreside rivals despite their full back line preforming more than manfully, after Keith Rossiter was switched to full-back early in the Leinster final. Indeed Rossiter, Malachy Travers and Paul Roche could very legitimately win the claim as the best full back line combo in the championship last year, given that their Kilkenny equivalents didn't have to face Shefflin, Brennan etc outside the confines of training at Nowlan Park. This year however, the excellence of David O' Callaghan notwithstanding, they are displaying an edginess which is worrying before a trip into the cats lair, with Travers in particular resorting to a lot of fouling. There have been some hopeful signs. The resourcefulness of all the half back line, especially Mick Jacob, in relatively unfamiliar terrain. The brio of Stephen Banville. The quiet leadership of Rory Jacob. It would be a boon if the aforementioned duo were joined in the full forward line sooner rather than later by Barry Lambert, arguably the most improved hurler in the country in 2007. But with one of their stars against Kilkenny last year Stephen Nolan still injured, you would still be very fearful for a Wexford side, which would struggle to get within 10 points if they were playing with a full deck. For Dublin a chastening experience away to a revanchist Cork may be in store, a trimming that would put the tin hat on a very disappointing season at all grades. The full back line seems no nearer definitive improvement in total, although Tomas Brady might be deemed the answer at no.3 now after his firefighting in the reply there, and an impressive display against Kilkenny at u-21. But although Ross O' Carroll and Joey Boland continue to mature, there is little sign that a cohort of five or six top-class players is close to formation, from which a serious challenge can be made. John McCaffrey has had a disappointing year and his laboured display at u-21 against Kilkenny was dispiriting. In a typically acute observation former Offaly manager John McIntyre signposted Kilkenny's facile 10 point victory against the reigning Leinster champions as the most depressing result of the summer. Heres hoping with recession, and the doleful weather holding its grip that the showery Thursday night in Parnell Park maintains that accolade for a few months.