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.