How are the counties shaping up after the opening weekend of the National Hurling League?

Newstalk Sport's Oisin Langan looks ahead to the second weekend of fixtures

How are the counties shaping up after the opening weekend of the National Hurling League?

Cork's Patrick Cronin and David Burke of Galway Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Mike Shaughnessy

The opening weekend of the Allianz Hurling League was examined far more closer than it needed to be. 

The league might be played in winter conditions but hurling never was, and never will be a winter sport, just ask anyone who went to Walsh Park to watch the part hurling, part ploughing opening encounter between Waterford and Kilkenny.

The home side, in particular showed some nice touches and battled well to earn a first victory over the Cats since 2009, however every comment made about the game was followed closely by references to the extremely heavy pitch and the bounce killing turf. That’s not the fault of the players, management or grounds staff it’s just the way it is when a summer sport is played in winter. Technically it’s Spring but don’t be that person!

This weekend, the Deise travel to Cork, and probably the best pitch in the country as they take on a Rebel side who flopped badly against Galway in Pearse Stadium last week. Losing games early in the league, especially away to Galway is not a disaster but what may concern Rebels supporters is that is was an experienced Cork side last weekend. Also worrying was that the goal threat all but disappeared once Seamus Harnedy went off injured. An injury that keeps the St Ita’s forward out of this game.

Cork's Seamus Harnedy. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Given Cork's lacklustre performance, did we learn much about a Galway side who were just keen to get back on the pitch? In last year's All-Ireland final second half, Kilkenny gave them no time and space and Galway couldn’t cope. As we saw in the first half of that game and throughout the Championship last year, if you stand off Galway they’ll do damage. What was impressive last Sunday was the Tribesmen's ability to break tackles and offload in contact while Niall Burke's ball-winning and goal-scoring ability also excited those in Maroon.

Clarinbridge's Micheal Donoghue has played it smart since taking over. Fans and blood-thirsty press people such as myself have been keen to know if there is splits, personality issues or any ill effects from the All-Ireland collapse and winter of discontent that followed.  Donoghue, who was a silent partner in the Tipperary set up under Eamon O’Shea, has provided a calm public face assuring anyone who asks the players are only looking ahead and won’t be haunted by the ghosts of 2015. 

We as fans will never, nor should we ever be privy to everything that goes on in the dressing room of a tight inter-county squad. The relationship between supporters and teams is fickle in every county but a winning run would generate a positive vibe around the squad. A positive vibe is required more than ever in the West right now. Only time will tell us if something is rotten in the state of Galway. If they perform well in the Championship there’ll be no questions asked. If they don’t, then the “ah sure there's problems there” whispers will resurface. 

Galway’s manager Micheal Donoghue. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

For better or worse, sport and those who follow it are that shallow. Let's face it, we all love gossip. In the near to midterm future one of these players will inevitably retire and release a book for the Christmas market – I know the first chapter I’ll rush to, is the 2015 All-Ireland final but until then, these lads will get Liam or lose trying.

Saturday night will provide a good test for Galway as they go to a Dublin side with whom they’ve built a rivalry. It’s an easily traced antagonism and it comes from familiarity in the last year or so. A win each in the Walsh Cup and then league was followed by a Championship draw, and an at times ill-tempered replay in Tullamore last summer. Then

Then there was the digging match in Boston at what was supposed to be an exhibition match. Then again wasn’t Drago v Creed an exhibition match and look what happened there! They met again last month in the Walsh Cup semi-final with Dublin winning a high-scoring encounter that passed off without incident. 

A game under lights in Donnycarney always produces a great atmosphere and the Dubs need to stand up and be counted after a misfire in Thurles last week. Parnell Park is like the old Lansdowne Road. It’s not pretty but it can generate a great atmosphere when full, and a seat in the stand or a spot on the terrace makes you feel almost part of the action on the pitch.

 

Waterford manager Derek McGrath and Kilkenny's Brian Cody. Photo by Noel Browne

Only Brian Cody can tell you what he was thinking in the photo above but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was "Dude, it’s only the league”. The Cats boss said he was pleased with the effort from his side last week while admitting they were second best throughout the game.  Last week, Waterford needed the win and that need was obvious throughout the game.

The same could be said for Tipperary this weekend as they aim for the psychological boost a victory over their closest rivals would supply. This is one of those games you get excited about going to, given the nature of their battles in recent seasons. While we were denied a Championship encounter between them last year we were served up exciting league and All-Ireland finals the year before. Last year's league meeting wasn’t memorable however with Kilkenny looking to avoid two losses in a row and Tipp wanting to lay down a marker this game takes added significance.

Kerry were the story of Division 1B last week beating a weakened Laois side in Portlaoise. The fact that the O’Moore County were missing players doesn’t take from the Kingdom's victory, although one suspects reality will bite this Sunday as Limerick visit Killarney. The Shannonsiders cruised passed a poor Wexford last Saturday in their opening tie. However, with so many players involved on Na Piarsaigh and Fitzgibbon Cup duty maybe the hosts could cause another shock.

Wexford welcome Clare to Innovate Wexford Park needing to come up with a big performance but they’ll be without Jack Guiney who left the panel for personal reasons. Guiney is a huge loss as Liam Dunne desperately needs a ball winning forward and the goal threat he provides. Offaly held out for a short time against Clare last week in Ennis but eventually class told and the Banner romped home, this week Laois are the visitors for a midlands derby.

Wexford's Jack Guiney. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Division 2A is expected to be the Antrim show as PJ O’Mullan looks to guide the Saffrons out of the woods and back onto the path. Last week, they were given a fright against Derry but this week they should have too much for Kildare. Fellow promotion candidates Carlow had to fight hard to beat Kildare in Newbridge last week but this week shouldn’t have any problems against London.

Much of the league talk has been dominated by how much Clare and Limerick need to get out of Division 1B, however the jump from 1B to 1A is not nearly as important as the quantum leap from 2A to 1B. Carlow and Antrim are desperate for top-tier hurling and if either county is to develop it has to happen sooner rather later.

Carlow are on the border between greatness and oblivion they need to play at a higher level or face another long walk in the wilderness. I‘d write about Antrim but at this stage we’re all well aware how great they could be as a county but how much they’ve underachieved. PJ O’Mullan led Loughgiel Shamrocks to greatness and now he’s tasked with bringing Antrim from the Glens to the green pastures. If there’s a better man for the task I can’t think of who it is.