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.