Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The season so far

Well the new championship season has roared into life. The oddity about that comment is what one perceives to be acuity would be another man's dry sarcasm. The entry of Galway into the Leinster Championship, with a sleepy turkey shoot in Portlaoise, was with the whimper that can only be expected from the contrary organisation that is the G.A.A: That clarion calls it's secondary competition with a full house at headquarters in balmy February and then lets its championship unwind unhurriedly over a few weeks. At least the soccer juggernaut will slow down for a few weeks bar the process of all the best players in the world conglomerating at a few clubs and R.T.E happily trumpeting that the delectable spectacle of European Champions Spain taking on, er New Zealand on our t.v screens.

The long anticipated meeting of Kilkenny and Galway, the pairing that, to listen to some of the talk last autumn, would save hurling, will be upon us on Saturday week in the apposite citadel of O' Connor Park in Tullamore. What was curious in the last few weeks was that conspiracy theories existed both that the sides would be foisted together in the semi and that they would be kept apart. The latter premise seemed more likely especially when we have been told that a Croke Park showdown between the teams would be a seriously sellable commodity. That it is not being hosted in Croke Park indicates that the game will not attract the rapturous sizeable attendance some of the hyperbole had indicated.

But that game is for another day. The initial clash of the titans in Thurles Sunday week last was an odd affair. The combination of the closeness of the exchanges, some of the scores taken and the ushering in of the championship proper on the dry summer sod in Thurles led to the game receiving much favourable coverage. What was strange though was that, in a repetition of recent patterns, Cork's forward line flopped with four of the selection being subbed. Yet in no sense could any of their Tipperary opposite numbers be said to have dominated their patch. Tipp will be comforted by the fact that the match fitness of their two best players Conor O'Mahoney and Eoin Kelly will come on for the outing. But the continuing fitfulness of their half-forward line ball winning has been well signposted in the last two weeks. Tipp will, overall, be glad that the overplaying of a league final display against the Kilkenny gold-standard hasn't been starkly shown to be as false a currency as it was in 2003.

Bar minor quibbles about their fitness in the last ten minutes of the game, Cork once again showed that a disastrous spring preparation isn't as discommoding as continuing to rely on the McCarthys to lead the attack. Niall McCarthy in particular is beginning to resemble a middle aged dog, formerly of war, who finds that the surfeit of youthful energy he used possess had a vital kryptonite element. The other thing that occurred to these possibly jaded eyes was that Ben O' Connor may, curiously for a Cork Hurler, end up not being as lauded at the end of his career as he should be. Will the player who has been unquestionably the best, all out half-forward of his generation ( the Kilkenny giants move around too much to be allocated a pigeonhole) get the credit he deserves when he calls it a day, or will some not be able to differentiate his achievements from those of his twin brother Gerry. To remind, Ben and Wayne Sherlock were the little boys with their fingers in the dyke in Cork's shambolic 2002 season, before Jerry had yet to make an impact on championship hurling.

As Nicky English graciously admitted ( and he not adverse at times to doffing the hat at the traditional powers ) the standard in Wexford Park the previous night was not far removed from Thurles. Kudos to Colm Bonner for raising his charges above the get-out clause of the emergency ward 9 scenario that has bedeviled his panel. Bonner could have been forgiven for wryly sympathising with his predecessor John Myler when Rossiter, Stamp, Lambert and Stephen Nolan, all of whom were only fit to come as subs on in last years All-Ireland quarter final weren't good to go again at the start of '09. Yet Wexford almost made a hindrance out of a virtue. If truth be told only the subsequently afflicted Eoin Quigley and Barry Lambert, on his 2007 form, were acute losses to the starting xv. Indeed Wexford, with the continued development of Stephen Banville and the hints of potential in Tomas Waters and Andrew Shore appear to have added a physicality they sorely lacked in the last 5/6 years. Plus Richie Keogh, another absentee last season, indicated that he could emerge as one of the country's best centre-backs. Your blogger is also tempted to know if Gizzy Lyng worked on the turnstile on the evening in question. Given that he scored sidelines, saved penalties, stroked frees and pilfered points from long distance on the night, there would appear to have been no limit to his possibly productivity.

For Offaly it was a dispiriting defeat. Your correspondent who lamented the state of Offaly hurling 12 months ago, before David Kenny, Derek Molloy and Shane Dooley subsequently strutted their stuff, will be careful not to leap in with studs showing again. But the anonymity of Molloy and Brian Carroll was fatal to a burgeoning side who still have square pegs at corner-back and centre-forward and require most of their big guns firing on any given day. Their next clash against a top ten side will be crucial to the Joe Dooley project. They will at least expect David Kenny at full-back to be over his injury concerns.

Whether Colm Bonner sees the decidedly sketchy form of his semi-final opponents Dublin as a boon or something to be roundly ignored is questionable. Even allowing for having to face the stiff wind in the first half against Antrim, Dublin were well short of the mark that they have been talked up to after their spring exploits. Tomas Brady evinced an unsteadiness at full-back that could be fatal against the buccaneering Banville. The lack of production from their half-forward line was such that there have been whispers that Ross O' Carroll could be rushed back to action, despite the fact that he has barely swung a hurl in anger in the calender year. And the consequences if Dotsie O' Callaghan is held in check don't contemplate thinking about. Yet history teaches us that an Anthony Daly stewarded side are unlikely to withholds their bristles two days running. As their runaway u-21 victory against Wexford on Wednesday last shows, the Dublin hurling graph is unlikely to flat line anytime soon.

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