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.