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.