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.