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.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Weekend hurling previews

Wexford v Kilkenny

If this was a one off game Brian Cody couldn't have orchestrated a better scenario to motivate players who have been plenty of times around the block. A chance to atone for the league final in a packed Wexford Park. Amidst an atmosphere heightened by an under 21 and (possibly) football victory.

There is though a negative to Kilkenny's limp league final display beyond its worrying implications. Tipperary on Sunday week showed themselves again adept at not getting too worked up for the early stages of the championship. Kilkenny have more serious miles on the clock issues and can perhaps ill-afford to leave too much on the field on Saturday night. In one sense they are in a no win situation. Struggle and the doubts will grow: Flake Wexford in retribution for the defeat to Dublin and too much petrol may be used. Clare in 1999 would be an example where an aging great team weren't able to pace their way through a championship.

The Cats though may be saved by the fact that the likes of Shefflin, Fennelly and Power can possibly only give a certain amount of themselves tomorrow and will come on for the game. There are others though who can't think beyond Saturday evening. Paul Murphy was so impressive at under 21 grade that he looked like he could be the natural corner back Kilkenny didn't even know they needed. His progress has stalled since so this is a red letter day. Similarly for Paddy Hogan at wing back. If there doesn't appear to be an opening in this area, once Tommy Walsh returns, Hogan's raging against the light in the League final, with torpidity all around him, was doubtless noted by Brian Cody. So it seems was Eddie Brennan's poor performance in the League final.

So if Kilkenny produce a display akin to what they unleashed in the 2010 championship what are Wexford's chances of being competitive. Well, not especially good this blog would surmise. A mite too much has been made of the end to Wexford's league when Cork were experimenting and Tipp dreaming. This blog has been a long standing admirer of Wexford's undervalued defence, but too often injuries have impinged. Paul Roche and Darren Stamp have recently struggled with niggles and they may not be at the concert pitch required. Matthew O' Hanlon has received good notices but we'll likely know a lot more about the 19 year on Sunday morning.

Up front a large amount has to be taken on trust. PJ Nolan is in decent form but summer fulfillment of the promise shown at minor in 2005 is overdue. Stephen Banville tends to flatter to deceive in games such as this. As a few pundits have mentioned a good start for Wexford is crucial. But at a certain stage the absence of Gizzy Lyng and the Eoin Quigley of his pomp will kick in. Even if they turn it into a war, aided by an atomsphere better than there would have been at an antiseptic Croke Park, it likely won't change the result against a team that will find scores easier to come by. Where Kilkenny's fuel gage will be at at nine o clock tomorrow though will be interesting in itself.

Limerick v Waterford

One wonders if Donal O' Grady guided Paddy Powers towards their pricing on Sunday's Game. He has spewed plenty of doom and gloom in advance of the clash, and that was likely before he heard the weather forecast. The perils of throwing a Division 2 team in against a higher echelon side have been signposted: As has the fact that all bar two of Limerick's starting team didn't play championship last year. But this blogger wonders has O'Grady protested too much. Albeit that positivity towards the Shannonsiders is partly based on having this old dog for the hard road at the helm.

Plus how prepared will Waterford be to put their supposed inferiors in their place on Sunday. In the league they were competitive and often showed the best traits of their manager. They didn't die when down to 13 men in Thurles and are well able to mix it physically with the other top teams. To even be able to ply your hurling wares against a Kilkenny or a Tipperary you need to have the likes of Brick Walsh, Shane O' Sullivan, Kevin Moran and Richie Foley to bump and grind. But the admirable tenacity that has kept Waterford at the top table has masked the fact they haven't shown an ability to put away lesser sides to be in their armoury.

For example Waterford have played Clare in plenty of matches of varying importance in the last 12 months and have never dispatched them decisively. Plus their competitiveness has also valiantly masked that Waterford are themselves in transition: Five of Sunday's starting team are under 21. Two of them indeed are 2010 minors, albeit in Paudie O' Mahoney and especially Daragh Fives, very promising ones. Maurice Shanahan and Brian O'Sullivan showed up very well in the scoring stakes at 21 grade recently; but that may have been as much to do with an underwhelming Tipperary defence.

Limerick on the other hand look to be stronger in defence than in the Division 2 league final, if Brian Geary is still the player of yore. Gavin O' Mahoney has now been released to a more natural position. There may still be a question of having a suitable candidate to mark John Mullane and a canny enough operator to man the square, with a poacher like Shane Walsh on the scene. In the other half of the field keeping the ball away from Brick Walsh may be an idea, although perhaps easier said than done. They do however have a coltish prospect in Kevin Downes to test Waterford's long running full back sore.

This blogger doesn't see the gulf between the teams that has been signposted in some quarters. The 9/4 about Limerick is tempting. Ultimately though in the last 15 minutes Limerick's lack of ball winning in the half forward line and Waterford's reliability in a battle may be decisive.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Quarter Final Reviews

Dublin v Offaly

It really couldn't have worked out any better for Anthony Daly. After the high of the League final, his team were taken down a peg or two in a Croke Park that might as well been populated by tumbleweed. Daly would likely have figured that a putative semi final against Galway would be as significant a struggle as provincial semi finals get in this back door era. Defeat for either side will lead to a degree of air coming out of the tyres. So there likely wasn't much room for frenetic manoeuvre versus Offaly. The usual pattern of intensity being ratcheted up a notch from league to championship didnt apply here. The Clarecastle man was thus blessed that Offaly's debilitating injury list meant that his charges didn't face a side at the same height of power that sorely tested Galway last summer.

There were positive aspects to Dublin's defending. Oisin Gough took the chance to show his manager that, as a specialist corner back, there should be room for him in the side. Shane Durkin is filling in for very capably for Stephen Hiney. Fans will also be heartened that there is competition for places once Brady and Boland return, but will be cognisant that both were missed. Further up field there are some kinks to be ironed out even though Alan McCrabbe showed signs of summer life. There is still too much switching and bunching in attack, albeit that Daly isn't likely to expunge the habits of a managerial lifetime at this point. It was a day where Dotsie cried out for a better service. In the current configuration Daire Plunkett is a tad of a speedy square peg in a round hole, and may end up an impact sub. Further Paul Ryan still has to impose himself on a big summer match. June 18th would most certainly be a day for that. Dublin will be at the very least a lean mean fighting challenge for Galway to tackle especially if they have a clean bill of health. Lets bring it on.

Offaly under Joe Dooley have got stuck in a habit of passing by compensation to use examinational parlens. Forced to deal with a hand that, without being cruel, included 3/4 very marginal players at this level they dug in with commendable valour. A trend has developed of the Faithful fighting on their backs against counties that they were usually equal to or superior, ( Galway, Dublin ) whilst surrendering relatively tamely versus the traditional giants of the game. On the positive side, amidst an epidemic of injuries, Derek Morkan and Dylan Hayden stood toe to toe with Dublin's physical half forward line in displays laced with no little skill. The slight frustration would be that, especially with Brian Carroll hobbled, Derek Molloy and Joe Bergin only flashed their potential intermittently as is their frustrating wont. The team are also still waiting for a Daniel Currams or a Cathal Mahon to truly gatecrash the party. You thus feel that, with injury problems always likely to be an issue, Offaly's summer doesn't have quarter final appearance written all over it. With under age steeples looking very dreary, retrenchment appears the best that can be currently hoped for.

Tipp v Cork

It's almost a new one in hurling circles. Perhaps coming to your town for one night only. Or at least for the first time since 1997: It being, a Cork moral victory. An eight point defeat to their deadliest rivals is apparently a prime opportunity for Cork to cook a snook to all their detractors. Doubtless there is an arguable case that the rebels overall worth has been slightly undervalued: That recent underage results are too blunt an instrument when judging the quality of players Cork are producing. But as it turned out Cork's display almost exactly mirrored their performances during the league: In that they were in there pitching with the best of them, but that a lack of cutting edge up front, and especially a lack of goal power did them in. Indeed if we were to try and patronise Cork people further it would be the observation of what an all round plucky display it was. For Sunday's Cork team, with John Gardiner slightly pallid and Shane O' Neill at best undercooked was almost completely devoid of genuine top quality. Exceptions may have been Niall McCarthy or Pat Horgan. But the former possibly hits a few too many injudicious wides, and the latter still has a little bit to prove on the summer stage, not least to his manager it appears. It's also interesting how, with Tom Kenny and Jerry O' Connor gone from the starting line up, and Cathal Naughton also not making the cut, that the possession running game is still adhered to. It was carried out fairly effectively, but the result of having the full forward line too far away from the goal is possibly a luxury the rebels can no longer afford.

There were positives, as there has to be when you puck more ball than the All-Ireland champions. Stephen McDonnell gave an unruffled and intriguing display- that had echoes of Frank Lohan about it- at corner back. William Egan survived the acid test that is an under 21 making a championship debut at centre back. Lorcan McLaughlin probed effectively at mid-field, not that, like Horgan, it saved him from the long hand of Denis Walsh's law. His partner Pat Cronin was the latest in a long line of Cork players to thrive in the world of Donal Og Cusack's peerless puck out accuracy. But Cork likely expected more from Cian McCarthy and the attack in general has to find a sharper rapier if they are to reach a semi final.

On his recent visit Barack Obama was doubtless made aware that he is a Tipp rather than an Offaly man when it comes to wielding the stick that Enda Kenny presented to him. But it was the words of another famous American icon Muhammad Ali ( Clare not Tipperary qualified ) that came to mind whilst watching the latest premier outing: In that most bumble bees would be delighted if they could match Tipp in the floating and stinging stakes. Indeed keeping track on Tipp's stellar midfield and forward play must be a sore trial for assiduous opponents who may have the naive belief that, say, a left corner forward will stay in there. And of course the silky probings of Kelly, Corbett, McGrath and Callinan ( who brought the form of the training field to championship ) are underpinned by the Stakhanovite zeal of Patrick Maher.

There are a few scudding clouds on the horizon. Wing back was the unauthoratative muddle that this blogger sensed it would be. There are notions abroad that the return of Conor O' Mahoney and Brendan Maher will allay these fears. But a reliance on O' Mahoney's fitness day in day out is a slightly quaint notion, and Maher would be ( and was on Sunday ) badly missed in midfield. Further presumably the return of O'Mahoney would mean that Paudie Maher would be exiled to a slightly less effective station at wing back. It's ironic indeed that, like the now defunct 10 bus, Tipperary centre backs seem to come along in a cluster after yonks waiting for one.

To these eyes at least the full back line seems at least as big an area of concern for Tipp management. A Cork full forward line with virtually no record of winning ball in the summer garnered buckets of it last Sunday.Plus you sense that Declan Ryan doesn't have bench options in this area of the field. But perhaps Stapleton, Curren and Cahill are the All- Ireland champs in microcosm. This blog expected Tipp to be mostly in third gear last Sunday and they didn't disappoint. If they were chinks in the armour the argument could well be made that very few outfits have the armoury to discommode Tipp if they ever hit fourth gear consistently.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dublin v Offaly preview

For much of the winter this looked like a coruscating start to the championship proper. Dublin v Offaly in the claustrophobic surrounds of Parnell Park. A crucial year three for the Anthony Daly project put to an early test against an Offaly side that nearly spoiled Galway's party last summer. Even shortly after Dublin's sensational league final victory the match, now transferred to Croke Park, looked exceedingly trappy for Dublin as a result of their injury travails in defence.

Sadly Offaly's own treatment room, a large reason for their spring relegation, has only become more populated in recent weeks. The absences of David Franks and Brendan Murphy were soon to become permanent in any case due to old father time. Joe Brady and Paul Cleary are stout and physical but ultimately limited yeomen. But it is the absence of James Rigney and latterly Rory Hanninfy that are truly calamitous. They are two of the more under-appreciated operators in inter-county hurling and their non appearance the Faithful half back line appears fatal. Against a battering ram of a Metropolitan half forward line Offaly seem woefully callow especially if they elect not to take David Kenny out of full back. There's also whispers that Brian Carroll isn't fully fit. Even when Offaly were bestride hurling in the 80's and 90's they struggled to have a cohort of 19/20 inter county performers.

Conversely Dublin's defence shorn Brady, Hiney and Boland doesn't look to be creaking at the hinges. The exclusion of Oisin Gough for the league final appeared curious in any case. If Boland will be missed he hasn't necessarily shown himself to be an out and out centre back at this exalted level as yet. Dublin's depth may of course be put to a certain test. Joe Bergin has the ability to sorely test Peter Kelly or John McCaffrey in the central areas if he gets out of bed on the right side. Derek Molly and Shane Dooley are also capable of pyrotechnics. But Offaly would have been tested to match Dublin's athleticism and physicality with a full hand. Cliches that they always being capable of an ambush don't quite ring true to the same extent as Cork, given that memories of prodigious feats are now becoming dimmer. Hopefully the wagons will be defiantly circled and the midlanders, closer to fuller strength, will come roaring back in the qualifiers. As it is it may only be a Dublin down day, sandwiched between the league final and Galway that may keep matters close on Sunday.

Tipp v Cork Preview

Hurling fans from the so-called weaker counties might have had a little giggle in recent days at media assessments of Cork's chances. Bizarrely there has almost been a patronising air to the previews. Old shibboleths of' 'old firm' clashes are being clasped to. We've heard that the underdogs in these matches always rise to the occasion: That Cork hurlers are to the manor born when they hit the pitch in Thurles. But it's indicative of the recent malaise in Cork underage hurling that even the comparison of rebel hurlers to fungi isn't being trotted out as of yore.

Granted some cliches enter the ether because they have a ring of truth. Tipperary and Cork do have some element of an umbilical relationship. Tipp's rivalry with their southern neighbour has rarely had the same enmity as occasionally embitters relations with Limerick and Clare. When the ghosts of Raymond Smith and Jack Lynch travel together on the Heuston train on Sunday they will do so in collegiality. The meas between the teams is such that the superior team often fails to put the other away convincingly. In the 2005 Munster final for example a terrific Cork team almost appeared to take pity on the Premier at half-time.

So why in this instance do the pundits feel there is a decent gulf between the sides. Well it's not based on recent match ups. Cork are unbeaten in three league and championship outings against their old enemy in the last 14 months. Considering it's the fashion these days to treat the league seriously it is odd that Tipp's apparent superiority isn't especially franked by recent league form either. We are of course slightly playing silly buggers in that the side's respective displays against Kilkenny last autumn does indicate a gap in class. But there are a few things to remember about Tipp tomorrow. Firstly They have something to prove at wing back where the redoubtable Declan Fanning has to be replaced. Secondly Brendan Maher comfortably ( lest it be forgotten ) Tipp's most consistent player last season is missing for a game where there has also been an injury cloud over his midfield partner Shane McGrath. The uncertainty of new management has to be factored in. Granted further forward there appears to be an abundance of Premier riches. If Shane Bourke and especially Pa Bourke had plied their wares in a Cork jersey this spring they would doubtless have been integral to a rebel challenge. As it is neither have been able to force themselves in front of Seamus Callinan's somewhat, ahem, enigmatic charms.

Being ultra rational it's hard to make a persuasive case for Cork. Pa Cronin and Cian McCarthy must now come to the fore. Debutant William Egan will need plenty of help against Noel McGrath. A last hurrah for the best out and out wing forward of the last 20 years Ben O' Connor would be exceedingly handy. But something tells us that Cork will play above themselves whilst Tipp may slip below the highest standards. Some may point to Tipp not wanting to be caught with their pants down as they were last year. But the counter argument would be that this Tipp team know the importance of pacing a season. Only one side in Thurles tomorrow is realistic All-Ireland contenders. But they may make heavy weather of it, likely in heavy weather. The import and history of the Cork Tipperary relationship expects nothing less.

Monday, May 9, 2011

League Finals Review

There is an exhilaration when a seismic change seems close at hand. Even more so when it appears to have come from almost nowhere. Conversely many may claim that that what happened in the league final was inevitable. That all Dublin needed to push them over the top were the probings of General Daly. This forgets the fact that the the darkest hour before the dawn was last summer's eclipse to Antrim. Plus Dublin's ascent to the top table was in no way as inevitable as it now seems: Sure there has been much incremental progress, but they have actually only been to one underage All-Ireland final in recent years, and that led to a pummelling by Galway in the 2007 under 21 final. The base for Dublin's success has been the physical athleticism that the likes of Tomas Brady, Peter Kelly, Joey Boland and Liam Rushe bring to the party. It's still perhaps slightly under-reported that in modern hurling to compete with the best you have to have the capability to bang horns with them physically as a minimum. What has seemingly put Dublin over the top was the certainty of chance: The clarion call of hurling eventually becoming too hard to resist for Conal Keaney. The general aversion to what Tipp people pejoratively call 'Mullockers' counting against Ryan O Dwyer. The timely ascent to the ranks of Daire Plunkett and Conor McCormack. The latter may yet go on to have a minor role in the Dublin hurling story. But his, ahem, grace notes from the 2011 league final should always be remembered. Like Galway's Richie Murray ten years ago in an All-Ireland semi final, McCormack, as a young player in his first big match wasn't awed by Kilkenny reputation and concentrated in getting his ( mostly legitimate ) retaliation in first. Much comment has been focused on the role McCormack played in Eoin Larkin's sending off and John Dalton's suspension, but in either half he also put Kilkenny players on the talamh with ON the ball shoulders.

Those who didn't see the game may imagine that if the cats hadn't played more than half the game with 14 men they may have been in it to the finish. But when both sides had the full complement Dublin swamped their illustrious opponents 11 scores to 3. Indeed for the rest of the match, until Dublin accelerated for the finishing tape late on, the metropolitians if anything appeared discomforted by their extra man. There has also been much gnashing of teeth in Kilkenny, led by Jackie Tyrell, at the cat's work rate dipping. However there was plenty of hooking and blocking by Tyrell's side in the early exchanges. It could be that like a work out junkie who feels he has been slacking in weight room, the former champions are leaning back on what has been an established credo of their team. But aside from their lengthy injury list Kilkenny's lamentable display can be explained other than by lack of noreside perspiration. The game was effectively decided in the first 25 minutes when the Kilkenny full back line was repeatedly torched by their opponents. This blog has pointed out for quite some time that Kilkenny's dominance throughout the field masked their vulnerability close to their own goal, especially to pace. The years are catching up on Noel Hickey and Michael Kavanagh and young pretenders did not put their hands up in League 2011. Curiously Brian Cody's response to this, in a national final, was to re-site his best full back line stalwart of recent years ( Tyrell ) to the half back line. Indeed one comfort Killkenny fans may take was the somewhat esoteric composition of the team. Up the field the siting of Matt Ruth and Cha' Fitzpatrick in the half forward line seemed more about their manager trying to test his individual charges rather than putting out a side to win a league final. Come the championship Kilkenny will have more ammunition available to them and the team will surely be more persuasively formulated. Those of us who felt the 2005 All Ireland semi final was the temporary end of an era, and likely Cody's tenure, were dead wrong.But unlike, say, Clare in the 90's they haven't made their name by hiding their light under a bushel in the spring. Surely, at the very least, if an All-Ireland is to be won it will be in the style of 2009 rather than 2008.

Limerick won the Division 2 final and thus have been spared the agonies of playing at a lower level for another year. It is instructive to point out though the main downside of playing in Division 2: That is the game at the lower level is nowhere near as physically intense and indeed suffocating as it is in Division 1. The skill level in the Division 2 final, although nothing to write home about, was not discernibly lower than the elite final. Indeed some of the traditional skills of the game like pulling on the ball in the air and the ground are now sadly anachronistic in the modern game, where much of the fare is akin to viewing over endowed rutting stags. Limerick thus can test their elbows at the crowded top table in 2012. Their callow charges certainly need fattening up. Donal O Grady cannily made sure that all the 2009 panel were asked to be involved this season. But as his team are taking shape it is interesting to note that they are just as youthful as Clare's charges. On Saturday week last O' Grady was fortunate that his decision to leave Dave Breen on John Conlon for so long, and consequently site Gavin O Mahoney in unfamiliar terrain at full back didn't explode in his face. But with one switch he was free and now can concentrate on a summer joust with Waterford. Although they are a top level side Waterford likely don't have the ammunition to provide the O' Grady project with a serious setback. Declan Hannon will likely miss that game due to his leaving cert. But it is the promise of the Adare starlet, rangy full forward Kevin Downes and the yet to ascend Shane Dowling that must excite management. Limerick fans will scarcely thank us for speculating but that trio could become this generations Carey, Houlihan and Kirby. Albeit that they are not likely to play as much ground hurling as Mike Houlihan did. Comparisons sadly are always an imprecise undertaking.

For Clare defeat now leaves perhaps the unpalatable prospect of a Championship entry against the All Ireland champions as the dubious rescue mission. The team's mood has arguably not been helped by manager Ger O' Loughlin's pre final claim that the summer could fall flat if they failed to get promotion. As it is the Clarecastle man has enough nettles to grasp leaving aside the mindset of his players. He may have to crawl back to Philip Brennan in goal after another high profile error by Donal Tuohy. The league campaign has failed to bring about any certainty ( if Division 2 could ever do that ) to his full back and centre back conundrums. It's interesting that there are those on the international superhighway who think that the best option for 6 is staring him in the face ( e.g U.L centre back Brendan Bugler or the coltish Patrick O' Connor ). But this only seems like a stick to beat an uncertain manager in the face with, rather than a holster of silver bullets. Unfortunately for Clare Dublin are now the side who can be compared with the great team Anthony Daly captained in the 90's. Clare have plenty of skill and x factor ability, especially when they deign to start Darach Honan. But even in a couple of years there is a danger that the phrase ' a good big un will always beat a good little un' will be thrown at them. Newcomer Liam Markham's touching notion to hit the ball occasionally without taking it into his hand was one of the highlights of the hurling weekend recently gone by. But in the spring when a prime exponent of such arts Ken McGrath retired it seems like grunt rather than grace are resolutely to the fore.

Monday, April 18, 2011

National Hurling League Round 7

Cork v Dublin The Dubs ( why does that expression grate ) will be even more the talk of the town in the coming weeks. This blog won't detain too long on the subject as we've given it plenty of encouraging and favourable comment. When many Dublin fans were expecting the team to run before they could walk stealthily, and Dotsie O Callaghan was having his career obituary written a year or so ago by excitable types on-line we urged the holding of nerve. One year further on, with notable additions to the panel, they are a sleek physical fighting machine. Crucially, athletic enough to bang with the likes of Kilkenny and Tipp, the first prerequisite to be invited to, say, an All-Ireland semi final party. Plus Daire Plunkett has x-factor potential and Paul Ryan appears to be adding work rate to his undoubted talent. It is a long season though, and what seems promising for Dublin now may appear clouded after the Offaly match. Plus many Championship hands aren't fully played in the modern era till the autumn. So Cork won't panic. But they look to be in uncertain transition. Supporters are probably slow to notice when old certainties can't be relied upon. As recently as two summers ago the rebels could still blitz sides with their pace: Searing runs could set up simple scores and be an invaluable pressure valve for the team. That, due to old father time, and the lack of favour the current management have with Cathal Naughton, appears almost completely denuded. Lar na pairce now seems an laboratory for Pat Cronin to show, that, despite his impressive physique, he has an inter-county future other than at half-forward. At least Niall McCarthy appears to be continuing his rejuvenation and Luke O 'Farrell evinced ball winning potential at corner forward. McCarthy and John Gardiner look to be the only All-Ireland winners from 6 years ago that are approximately at the same height of power. Even the extent to which Dublin's two man full forward line exposed shortcomings was disquieting, albeit Shane O Neill will presumably improve with game time. Still Tipp's respect for Cork's imposing tradition appears almost boundless. If the legend that Cork hurlers grow like mushrooms is being sorely tested, perhaps the red hand will still fit comfortably into the Thurles-glove as per tried and tested history. But even the slightly freakish Aisake is being missed: Not to mind Setanta; he of the last Cork winning All-Ireland underage side ten years ago. Waterford v Galway The events in Walsh Park might even be taken with a larger pinch of salt. Despite expressing disappointment one has a hunch that John McIntyre had little use for a league final. ( Declan Ryan hinted the same ) There's a suspicion that game time for Joe Canning, Damien Hayes and Shane Kavanagh trumped the notion of progressing to a league decider, albeit an opposite opinion could validly be put : That being that management wanted to get their best players into the fray after the reverse to Tipperary. If so this backfired with the very long leash which Kavanagh dealt with Waterford full forward Shane Walsh. Although Kavanagh is estimable and athletic, and was undercooked, this blog has frequently pointed out that his method of playing from behind is fraught with danger. There's not a huge amount left to be said about the Galway's panel. Two-thirds of them could be accused of inconsistency,and those perhaps in the lead position for Championship places will be aware that there is an operator of similarish quality on the bench. For Fergal Moore to have an injury free summer would be a fervent if perhaps forlorn wish. There have been enough springs west of the Shannon where hope has been eternal so maybe a league kick in the ass isn't the worst treatment for what ails Galway hurling. It may be ironic coming from a source which has delighted to plunge the knife into Galway, but we have a hunch that the best Galway team since 1990 could still emerge. And if that seems fanciful, remember it's not saying all that much. Davy Fitzgerald on the other hand is outwardly contented with his league lot. Nothing as coarse in Davy's grand plan as qualifying for the league final. He and many on the information superhighway are excited about the growing surfeit of options. Certainly Darragh Fives and Padraig Mahoney's assurance has been marked for a duo just out of minor. But to these eyes at least the other auditioning forwards Brian O'Sullivan, Gavin Crotty and Shane Casey didn't look quite up to this level, at least yet. But there were plenty of other positives. When he's not having to face Noel McGrath Brick Walsh is a commanding presence. Twice on Sunday he also emerged in the nick of time close to his own square to thwart Galway's goal chances. The likes of Shane O Sullivan, Richie Foley and Kevin Moran join the Stradbally man in an impressive phalanx of athletic talent in the middle third of the field. Although they are all versatile players in some respect this can be a curse as well as a boon. Like his former team-mate Anthony Daly Fitzgerald has a tendency to move and crowd his forward line too much. In that regard Sunday provided ample evidence that the closer Shane Walsh is left to goal the better for the team formulation. That said there still isn't the evidence yet that there is enough ammunition to take the weight of John Mullane when he's finished honeymooning.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dublin v Kilkenny & Galway v Tipperary

It's very much in vogue to discuss the woes of hurling. But much of this talk is quite simplistic. If for example Kilkenny had fallen prey to food poisoning, a la the All Blacks in '95, prior to either the 2007 or 2008 finals, resulting in liberation days for either Limerick or Waterford, it's likely that there wouldn't be anything like the waling and gnashing of teeth. Yet the fundamental landscape wouldn't be a jot changed. Those who may want to point to the disquieting aspects of the game currently though may use as an exhibit Kilkenny's 2011 league: That they are on the verge of getting to the final of a competition that they have put so little into: Or perhaps more accurately, that they have shone so dimly in, by comparison to recent years. Granted, as they displayed last year, it's possible for the cats to stutter through the league and still preform at a high level in August and September. But it is instructive for the summer ahead that the spring hidings that Brian Cody's charges have handed out to their main rivals in previous times appear to be a thing of the past. They have showed this year that physical strength and a deep panel can get you a long way in the shallow pool of hurling's top division. They benefited from a Tipperary hangover in the opening game and came through in desultory arm wrestles in Nowlan Park versus Cork and Waterford. But strange and unprecedented things have been happened to Kilkenny this spring that don't show up in as blunt an instrument as a league table. From the fifth to the 51st minute in the league game in Salthill they were outscored by 4-11 to 0-5. Dublin should have gone in at half time last Saturday evening in Croke Park having scored in the region of 3-16. If this may seem like nit-picking to Kilkenny supporters it's only fair to point out that we are dealing with a side that gave a display in the 2008 All-Ireland final the likes of which we'll never see again. It may seem risible to point out tiny chinks in hurling's version of the Three Gorges Dam, when the likes of Shefflin, Delaney, Walsh, Power, Tyrell and Rice are sitting games out. But recall that in previous seasons that Cody's response to winning All-Irelands was to do it all again with 3/4 changes in the starting line up. Bar the introduction of the effervescent Colin Fennelly there doesn't appear to be the same scope in 2011. Conor Fogerty and Paul Murphy had a trying day in Galway a few weeks ago, and being shifted outfield on Saturday didn't really lead to them making a better impression. PJ Delaney has also struggled to turn ample opportunity into productivity. And if Matthew Ruth took his goals well he may have to slot chances he has created himself before he makes a decent move up the pecking order. This blog is very far from saying the end is nigh: Kilkenny may after all be descending into an incredibly unsuccessful era where they win 2/3 of the next ten All-Irelands say. But it would only bear testament to their very recent greatness to point out that they are winning league games plying such utilitarian fare. It was pleasing indeed that until the last ten minutes Saturday's curtain raiser had the openness of a challenge match. Too often league games this season have been very decent advertisements for a 13 a side game. Naturally there are two ways to look at Dublin's progress. There is the rueful issue that they should have beaten both Galway and Kilkenny yet garnered only one point. On the other hand as recently as last summer most Dublin fans wouldn't have expected them to be,flat out, the best preforming side in the league. If some may feel that won't carry on to the summer then it's best to observe that the league table doesn't appear to lie in regard to other counties apparent worth: Kilkenny and Wexford are where you would expect them to be for example. Stephen Hiney will doubtless be missed but Shane Durkin may yet be a reasonable replacement in a less physical, more ball-playing way. Joey Boland will be welcomed back though. Not because Thomas Brady wasn't a barnstorming replacement but as Brady was consequently missed at full back. It will be fascinating to gather how Anthony Daly's team will line out in the summer from 8-15 if Alan McCrabbe and David Tracey force their way back in. Liam Rushe is currently plying his trade fairly well in unfamiliar midfield terrain. Indeed it's a feature of the league at present that there seems to be a partial reversion to tall wingforward types ( Pat Cronin and Conor Mahon ) plying their trade i lar na pairce. Also without much fan fare Daire Plunkett and Conor McCormack have pushed themselves into contention. The latter is a mobile tyro and the former could leave even the likes of Cathal Naughton in his wake in the spring heeled stakes. Plus Paul Ryan teased on Saturday that the undoubted ability he possess might begin to bare fruit at the highest level. If McCrabbe and Tracey aren't ready for starting duty by late May the Dublin management will be comforted that the forward cupboard, also augmented by Keaney and O'Dwyer, seems decently stocked. Galway v Tipperary Galway people have held great store for 2010 on the basis that they were only bested by a point by the eventual All-Ireland champions. A way of pricking that winter balloon was to point out the consequent improvement in the Premier County through August and September. The true worth of Galway thus in the close season was likely 6 or 7 points adrift of Tipp. That gap hasn't necessarily changed now just because they were the recipients of an 18 point caning last Sunday in Pearse Stadium. After a stop start league Declan Ryan had probably made his side aware that a performance was due. Galway on the other hand have, as is their league wont, been at full tilt since the slaughter of the innocents ( Wexford and Offaly ) in February. John McIntyre can at least console himself that he may soon have Collins, Kavanagh and Moore back to replenish the defensive troops. Actually, although the scoreboard wouldn't bear it out, his defenders battled manfully in the 2nd half against a gale force wind and a tails up Tipp. In some respects the complete lack of shape to the attacking play would be just as big a worry. Galway's depth is in some regards a curse, and one is never sure from one day to the next what to expect from Gerry Farraghar, Iarla Tannion Cyril Donnellan and Aengus Callinan. On a more jocose level the days of Galway trading with flighty skillful corner forwards seems a thing of the past. Indeed if one was to be slightly cruel it could be imagined that the aforementioned Tannion, young Joe Cooney and Joe Canning could form their own little mini sumo squad. For Tipperary the plethora of choice upfront still looks dazzling for them and daunting to others. Some may have taken succour from the relative spring struggles of Brian O'Meara and Sean Carey in making the seamless step up to senior. ( that's enough words starting with s-ed ) This has now been counterbalanced by the addition of Shane Bourke to the quiver of arrows; with the likes of John O'Neill also waiting around in the wings. Plus John Coghlan and John O'Keeffe have been more persuasive than the second string defenders tried out earlier in the league. The established players equally shone in what was the dictionary definition of a team performance. When the game was a game in the first half Padraig Maher bestrode like a colossus. If Lar Corbett was slightly at the fringes of proceedings, his contribututions were carried off with an insouciant class: He treaded softly but carried a very big and potent stick. Shane McGrath and especially Patrick ( we'll leave the 'Bonner' stuff to his brethren ) Maher showed there is plenty of brawn to go with the brain. Stapleton, Noel McGrath, Brendan Maher and Eoin Kelly are yet to return and the message seems clear. Other sides better hope Tipperary aren't as focused this year as last.

Monday, March 7, 2011

National Hurling League Week Three

Tipperary v Waterford

There have been too many games in this year's league decided long before the finish. But despite Tipp's victory being certain half an hour before the finish, the second half was strangely compelling. Waterford reacted to the bizarre actions of Shane O' Sullivan and Clinton Hennessy by keeping their cool and finishing the game with a controlled fury that ensured they kept the score line respectable. What will be particularly pleasing was the performances of the greenhorn fullback line, especially corner back Darragh Fives. Fives, indeed was one of three 2010 minors who saw action on Saturday night. Also, even though he was bested by Padraig Maher in the first half, Richie Foley again adorned a league match with beautiful striking from frees and play. On the negative side there wasn't any tangible signs that the gap between the two teams would close come the summer. Brick Walsh has had an uncertain start to the league albeit that he's had to operate in the orbits of Conal Keaney and Noel McGrath to date. Davy Fitz, and indeed other managers, might have to consider a man marker for the Loughmore prodigy come the summer. The traditionalists may feel it's a bridge too far, but the alternative of letting McGrath ( who scarily looks physically much bigger this spring ) and Lar Corbett to drift around with alchemy in tow is even less appetising a prospect.

Tipp stopped the rot and likely will have forgotten in a few days their torpor against 13 men. Paddy Stapleton was back to his best at corner back, albeit that's a state of affairs that sorely tests the referees patience when it comes to professional fouls. It is indeed one of the vexing issues in the modern game that fouling by the rulebook is so rife that referees feel compelled to let so much go, and also to play advantage when a forward clearly hasn't accrued any. Upfront the contrasting fortunes of ex- underage stars proceeded apace. Pa Bourke continued his renaissance, whilst at the other end of the spectrum 2010 under 21 starlets Brian O'Meara and Sean Carey found the going exacting. This is particularly surprising in the case of the former who would have the physique to handle the slings and arrows of League hurling. But then not every young player will come to senior as fully formed as Noel McGrath.

Cork v Galway

Nothing like the same fervour on show at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, which given the red mist that descended on a couple of Waterford stalwarts is perhaps just as well. A notion has entered hurling thinking in recent years that counties 'target' certain league games, according to the opposition and their place on the table. With four points safely in the bag and still nagged by an onerous injury list, one suspected that Galway didn't prioritise this match quite as much as their opponents. That said the tribesmen could still have stolen the spoils if their shooting has been more considered in the first half. One of the culprits was Iarla Tannion and in some respects his display at full forward was his inter county career in microcosm, with real flashes of potential not ending in much of substance. Tannion's full forward line colleague Aengus Callinan has often been in the same frustrating boat, but he at least thieved 1-2 in a match where Galway's midfield and forwards, score happy until now in the league, huffed and puffed. The central planks of Galway's defence also creaked. If Tony Og Regan's slight off day was forgivable, John Lee's struggles were more perplexing. After captaining an All-Ireland winning minor team from centre back in 2004 Lee was the next big thing in a county which often is teased by underage achievement. Almost to the weekend a year ago Lee was imperious at no 3 for NUIG on Fitzgibbon weekend. In 2011 however he looked a little out of condition and slightly frayed at the edges. When injured players return Lee may struggle to find a niche in Galway's defence. Even more so if Adrian Cullinane gives tidy wing back displays, like Sunday's, that were redolent of his fine summer's hurling in 2009.

Cork's manager Denis Walsh made no bones about the fact that his side needed a win. He will also be pleased that, unlike in the 2nd half comback against Kilkenny, it was his younger players that were to the fore. Cian McCarthy brought a very decent amalgam of work rate, catching and score taking to the party, and was decidedly unlucky that tg4 plumped for Pat Horgan as man of the match. Paudie O' Sullivan also recovered from early wides to have a productive afternoon, whilst Pat Cronin put in a decent shift in the slightly unfamiliar position of midfield. In a sense the league won't tell us much more about the aforementioned players, it being crucial from a Cork point of view that they preform in the summer. At wing back Ray Ryan was capable before his day was ended prematurely by injury but his distribution was not up to that of a previous incumbent of the number 7 shirt. Speaking of the O'Halpin's it's only fair to point out that for sheer awkwardness alone Aisake will be missed at some point during the season.

Offaly v Dublin

This missive will strive to mostly be a Conal Keaney free zone. Although this was likely his least stellar display of the spring he looks so fully formed at this level with that we can now only await the summer with impatience. Perhaps better to concentrate on the other 'big money signing' Ryan O' Dwyer. Along with his other aggressive virtues O' Dwyer ( or Dwyer as some elements of the media have curiously began to call him ) took both his goals adroitly. There will be greater tests ahead doubtless. Derek Morkan is a stylish young wing back, but is at best Offaly's fourth choice full back after David Kenny, Pat Cleary and James Rigney. What was most apparent on Sunday was the gulf between the sides depth wise. The sending off of Brian Mulrooney ( referee Alan Kelly had a quixotic afternoon to put it mildly, Mulrooney was unlucky, Ger Healion and Peter Kelly fortunate to stay on the field for other incidents ) almost certainly affected the scoreline rather than the result. Most managers will want to add a couple of players to a seasoned line up every summer but one wonders if Joe Dooley will readily accept at this point being able to field on May 29th the same xv that competed so well against Galway last season.

Anthony Daly played down the relevance of the gulf between the sides given Offaly's list of absentees. But since he'll gladly welcome back the likes of Alan McCrabbe, David O' Callaghan and David Tracey he'll have been encouraged by the younger forwards especially the fleet footed Daire Plunkett. Elsewhere John McCaffrey is in confident early season form and Peter Kelly has showcased his athletic versatility by slotting in at corner back. One position he likely won't fill will be goal keeper, where, as we come towards the end of a golden era for net minders, Gary Maguire is becoming a gold standard for quiet excellence. And how about that Conal Keaney.....

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Hurling League Week 2

Dublin v Tipperary:

A couple of weeks ago this blogger muttered out of the side of its mouth that Conal Keaney's return to hurling would get plenty of attention: Perhaps we were being a tad bitchy. He is being exposed to journalists waiting for the main event at Croke Park, what with the 'spring series' mopping up most of the paltry media coverage GAA gets in early spring. Plus he has a larger profile with the fourth estate than the likes of Tomas Brady and Liam Rushe because of his footballing exploits . Yet after two rounds of the league one is tempted to declare that if you can't beat them join them. On this winter evening at least ( we can always try to backslide by saying the fog clouded our judgement ) his performance was Shefflinesque. An intriguing concoction of muscularity, long range point taking and astute teamwork. To this, perhaps untutored eye, his free taking has been especially eye catching. Of course the Ballyboden man does bring a physique seasoned by years for inter-county football. But he is only augmenting a Dublin panel that, in the physical stakes at least, is well able to mix it with Kilkenny and Tipperary. To compete with the All-Ireland finalists you must first match them physically, an actuality that is still perhaps underplayed. With the likes of the aforementioned Brady and Rushe, Peter Kelly, Stephen Hiney, and Joey Boland, Dublin will fail only if their hurling lets them down. Presumably a lack of craft was the reason why Ryan O' Dwyer didn't make it in these competitive times in the premier county. But his re-location means that Dublin have another combative presence in the mix. Also Ruairi Treanor showed flashes that he can shadow inter-county corner forwards, although his clearances could do with work, whilst Joey Boland and John McCaffrey teased that they could still raise their games up a notch.

Tipp won't press any panic buttons about losing a game where four of their All-Ireland forwards didn't start. Plus they will trust that the rust will soon fall from their first choice fill back line. Though their sonambulance did at least let goalkeeper Darren Gleeson ply his wares convincingly. Declan Ryan will also take comfort that Pa Bourke and John O'Neill are continuing to tap on his door persistently. Yet is was odd that the Tipp management last week dropped from the panel four players who started in their first two league games. Albeit that this blog did point out that their defender depth was perilous if ( the now dispatched ) Conor O' Brien and Hugh Molony were on the fringes of the first xv.

Kilkenny v Cork

Viewing this tape wasn't even a labour of love. We took one for the team in the interests of keeping a blog updated. Granted the weather was vile, with wind, rain and pitch all discommoding the players. And the modern inter-county player can't be blamed if he's now a seriously dedicated athlete. But it truly was an impressive advertisement for a change to a 13 a side game. Combatants frequently got immersed in skirmishes around an ill-fated sliotar; akin to a schoolyard or a World War One battlefield. Still Kilkenny are an equal opportunities vanquisher. After all, in horse racing parlance they are more of a Denman than a Shergar. Even if the best Henry Shefflin impression thus far this season has been pulled off by a Dublin man, Brian Cody will be quietly satisfied with his forwards at this point. Adrian Fogarty and Colin Fennelly have relished the challenge of unfamiliar positions and Eddie Brennan has started 2011 better than he ended 2010 in his new role as semi permanent target man. The Kilkenny plan for this season will presumably be to get more pace and movement into their forward division. To overcome the loss of Ballyhale's finest is an onerous task. But Cody would surely have been a smidgin' disappointed that his attackers, to quote a famous philosopher, slightly resembled sheep in a heap in the All-Ireland. They will definitely upgrade if Richie Hogan forages and snipes all season like he did at Nowlan Park agaisnt Cork.

Hogan was comfortably the best forward on the puddin' pitch, but Pat Horgan's second half work rate would also have brought some warmth to Cork hearts. ( bovril could only do so much in the conditions ) The rebels desperately need last spring's sensation to develop a capacity to win his own ball in summer. For if he gets the sloitar in his hands he likely will trouble the scoreboard. The disquieting thing for Cork is that, Cian McCarthy's resilience apart, there is little sign of new forwards to freshen the menu. Cork's second half comeback involved the O' Connor twins and Tom Kenny hurling bravely at Kilkenny's ramparts, but none of that trio looked the same players as of yore when it counted last summer. In defence Stephen Mc Donnell and William Egan showed promise, ( where as an aside John Gardiner was characteristically belligerent ) but it is upfront where Cork need fresh blood if they are going to trouble 'the big two'. The game appeared to have swayed towards the rebels when they levelled matters against fourteen men, with the wind at their backs and a couple of minutes to play. Yet it was the cats who emerged with the victory. it would be stretching things to say they won playing within themselves there was little evidence on show that a summer encounter would be as tight.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rugby Country

Yes we do live there. At the risk of being blackballed by The Irish Times, reading their mostly excellent daily newspaper is a good place to realise this. On Monday week last Tom Humphries lamented the aversion the G.A.A have towards promoting their product. Yet on viewing last Saturday's edition of 'the old lady of D'Olier St. you notice that there's two of them in it. For they didn't include any substantial preview of the opening weekend of the National Hurling League; ignoring a fixture list that included a re-match of the enthralling All-Ireland between Tipperary and Kilkenny. The one county who appear to be trying to promote the national games in early spring is Dublin, and The Irish Times appears to have hitched their star to that wagon as the glut of recent articles about the Metropolitians would evidence.

But perhaps the newspaper is right. They may be emitting the subliminal message that if the G.A.A's half-heartedly play many of the inter-county games in February and March, the media can't be expected to take it that seriously. As it turned out the weekend featured stodgy fare in the main. The Thurles re-match was literally a damp squib where the All-Ireland champions arrived with plenty of post-hibernation sleep in their eyes. The displays of Clare and Wexford, both All-Ireland champions in the last fifteen years were genuinely shocking. Indeed it was the Dublin hurlers, who will benefit publicity wise from being on the Croke Park under card in the coming weeks, who contributed to the most persuasive fare of the weekend.

The Waterford Dublin game started breezily. Indeed to those who had been subjected to viewing Clare and Wexford ( thankfully with a working remote control ) on the same day, it almost looked like a different sport at times. Much will likely be made throughout the spring of Conal Keaney's return to the small ball game, but some of it will be warranted. He didn't hurl like a man lost to football for six championship summers, and his long range free taking was an extra 'brucie bonus'. What with some signs of life from Shane Ryan also in the first half, Dublin fans may indeed luxuriate in the return of prodigal sons and try to push the loss of the O'Carroll brothers to the outer reaches of their minds. Despite the away draw there were obviously minuses for Dublin in a performance where they had 1-14 scored in the first half hour, only to be bested by 2-7 to 0-0 for the next 25 minutes. Anthony Daly bows to no one in switching his team around, although this often leads to counterproductive bunching. Here Peter Kelly and Simon Lambert, both more used to being deployed in the half forwards, ended up at one stage as the side's corner backs. By that point Tomas Brady had been moved out from full-back, and the best place to position the estimable Na Fianna man is still an issue. Still with Dotsie O Callaghan relatively sprightly and Alan McCrabbe and David Tracey to return there was enough to be going along with.

Davy Fitzgerald is also entitled to feel that the pluses outweighed the negatives. He sent out a callow outfit with seven of the team that were vanquished by Clare in the terrific Munster under 21 final in 2009 featuring. Mind you his hint that they may have been missing 13 of their championship team was hyperbolic since Noel Connors, Brick Walsh, Shane O'Sullivan and Richie Foley featured. If it seems to good to be true before Valentines Day, Waterford may have some positive ideas about the the core of their attack already. The aforementioned Foley has thus far grabbed the no 11 shirt with very eager hands, contributing a very eye-catching 2-11 with 1-4 from play. At the edge of the square, it could be that Seamus Prendergast's recent decline may be arrested by a permanent move to full forward where he would,at the very least be a physical nuisance. The task of taking some pressure off John Mullane is likely the Waterford management's main task in the league.

But if Waterford fans think they have attacking questions to answer, try being from Wexford. With Gizzy Lyng taking a break from the travails of the yellowbellies their forward cupboard is woefully bare. Indeed those in the sunny south-east who have griped about Rory Jacob in recent times should mull over the wide distance talent wise between the Oulart man and his team mates. For much of the last ten years Wexford threatened to piece together a decent forward line. A Des Mythen or Stephen Doyle may intrigue here. A Stephen Nolan or Barry Lambert might tantalise there. But now Wexford appear lumbered with a cohort that ( we'll spare the naming and shaming ) either are physically ill-equipped to win ball, or haven't a notion what to do with the sliotar when it arrives. They could still field a very serviceable back-line come summer time. The question is what morale will be like for the players concerned at the fairly hopeless task that awaits them. Doubtless, come Leinster championship time Laois will fancy their chances of taking an overdue scalp.

It's an obvious cliche to conclude that Galway learned nothing from the mismatch. Indeed almost to the day in 2008 Aengus Callinan burned bright in the opening league game. Ger Farragher has put his best foot forward in the spring previously as well. But Gerard O' Halloran took the first positive step on the road to challenging Damien Joyce and Fergal Moore for a corner back position. Plus Donal Barry, perhaps better liberated from wing back, and Eanna Ryan evinced long range shooting that wasn't to be sniffed at. Putting the ball over the black spot is useful. Ask Wexford.

Or indeed Clare. The rough idea for their attacking strategy ( should one exist ) would be for the younger talented forwards to play around Fergal Lynch. For Lynch to be the side's top scorer from play was surprising. For the Clooney man to be the only scorer from play was calamitous. They may be some extenuating circumstances. Daragh Honan seems to be a complete top of the ground hurler, whilst debutant Conor McGrath also will benefit when the pitches firm up. One is always loathe to read too much into the opening weekend of the league. Yet the warning bells are starting to go off for the Clare project which is far too based on one All-Ireland winning u-21 side. They amazingly featured twelve of that side throughout the game and it is arguable that none of them have kicked on in the last 18 months. John Conlon, for example, is finding the leap to senior, where more than physicality and work rate are required, exacting. The side seems to lack physical and spiritual leadership and a lot of the little things go wrong too easily, e.g poor tackling by the forwards, inability to stop penalty shots. Focus may soon come on the management. As it was on this day Clare were the poor relation to their Shannonside neighbours who were already well organised by Donal O' Grady ( the manager, and buttressed by his namesake the veteran midfielder ). Limerick's backs, especially their half-line were physical and adhesive, whilst Paul Browne franked the excellent impression he's recently been making for L.I.T in the Fitzgibbon cup. Limerick's forward play was short on swagger, but Greame Mulcahy, like Browne a holdover from the tumultuous 2010, looked a nippy corner forward of promise on a day when his Clare opposite numbers struggled. Limerick fans will leave the forward issues for another day and may be teased by the pleasant and novel notion that if they are bested this year at least they wont be beaten by themselves.

Those who feel that hurling isn't to be bothered with in February would have nodded sagaciously after the Tipperary v Kilkenny match last Saturday. Tipp, perhaps as befits a side who are now top of the tree, looked less bothered by proceedings than their old rivals. Perhaps if there is a question to be answered for the All-Ireland champions it is that their depth in defence looks thin. Whereas there's no shortage of young colts looking to get into their attack, the recycling of the likes of Conor O'Brien and Hugh Molony at the back doesn't breed confidence. One of the young forward pretenders would be Pa Bourke who is showing signs that his stellar minor form of 2006 might yet not come to naught. For the cats, bar some uncharacteristic early wobbles in the half back line, it was all business. Since 2009 under 21's appear to be the order of the week, Kilkenny will be heartened that Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly are coming to the fore. The former is the type of natural corner back Kilkenny haven't necessarily traded hugely in recently. Fennelly also put his best foot forward, even though his siting at corner forward didn't appear to make optimum use of his ball carrying skills. The pair will of course be able to withstand the slings and arrows of inter-county hurling surrounded by legends of the game. Clare's young contenders would kill for such comforts.