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.