Shane Stapleton looks ahead to another busy weekend of hurling action
In this perverted world of modern GAA, it's now en vogue to saunter into a gun-fight with your two hands swinging.
You know, short hands and deep pockets. Put another way, to show up for the party without your best team. We'll come to the Dublin hurlers shortly, but clearly they're among several teams not picking from a full deck.
The county of Down watches on as the guts of a full panel of strong players is currently estranged from their actual set-up under Eamonn Burns.
It seems a long time ago now that John Evans was dreaming of All-Ireland glory with Roscommon. As for Derry, they don’t have all their best footballers on Damian Barton’s panel, though their hurlers are likely to have an upturn in fortunes for 2017 after the return of several top players.
Johnny Magee is heading into his third season as Wicklow boss and he feels as though he’s building on a burning platform: "I hate saying it but we have turned over 30 players since I have taken over as manager."
Perhaps 40% of Longford's best aren't on their county panel for differing reasons, and it's a tale across the country. While we hear of Rory O’Carroll or Jack McCaffrey taking a year out from Dublin football, the real story is the little guys losing key players you’ve never heard of. That hurts more when you don’t have the numbers.
Formerly an afterthought, the Dublin hurlers were becoming a big hitter. A Leinster title in 2013 was the culmination of years of hard work behind the scenes and by Anthony Daly, who became the front-man for their movement. A Blue Wave, if you will, which was a document laid out by the Dublin County Board in 2011 aimed at winning a Sam Maguire Cup every three years and the Liam MacCarthy every five. Since Daly’s final season and the two since under Ger Cunningham, the project has gone off course.
When you're building towards something, you'll have blips. Patience is required during a changeover too, and it’s something Cunningham has looked for - and he's due some considering the absence of his Cuala players. Still, we just can’t get away from the fact that, even allowing for all that, he is not putting Dublin’s best foot forward. Some people in the county feel that a couple of now-estranged players needed to be weeded out anyway, but the bloodletting has been too fierce.
For a Tipperary man who hurls in Dublin, there was no enjoyment in watching last Saturday night’s league game in Croke Park. Speaking privately with a couple of Tipp players afterwards, they were taken aback by the paucity of the capital’s challenge. But with 11 players aged 21 and under, Cunningham was asking too much against the All-Ireland champions - who weren't full-strength or near it.
The Cork native is an easy target just now and there's no pleasure to be had in criticising him. Bottom line, he’s fallen out with or discarded too much experience and it's come back to haunt him. "I think they’ve got to decide if that level of performance is good enough," was how he appraised his players’ performances after the 16-point loss. This smacked of passing the buck when the bill falls squarely on his table.
Steven O'Brien holds off Dublin's Shane Barrett during their Allianz Hurling League Division 1A clash in Croke Park last Saturday. Image: ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson
There are times when simply putting out the right message buys you goodwill, and surely the shepherd protects his young flock rather than telling them to dress up in wolves' clothing. We all know Dublin is a dual county where football takes precedence, but a week before a league opener was not the time for the following:
"When it comes to a choice, players will opt for football," Cunningham said in the Southern Star. "That’s unfortunate for us as there are at least five guys on the football panel who would walk onto the hurling panel if they wanted to." It’s true, of course, but it’s unhelpful. It’s coating yourself in Teflon.
Yet at the same time, when asked if Dublin could win an All-Ireland in the near future, he added: "The main aim is to be competitive and we’re team-building at the moment so a good deal of patience is required. These young guys are the future of Dublin hurling and it’s surprising how quickly they adapt to senior level. Given time, they will win an All-Ireland for Dublin."
But for a red card to Chris Crummey last summer, the Dubs looked set to beat Cork in the qualifiers and so another bad defeat on Leeside this weekend will mount further pressure on the 1986 Hurler of the Year.
Galway v Wexford is probably the highest-stakes game of the weekend as the winners will likely be promoted but it’s another 1B game that is even more interesting. There’s an incestuous slant to the clash of neighbours Laois and Offaly at O’Moore Park on Saturday. The pressure has been cranked up to 11 too by the Faithful’s annihilation by the Tribe, intensified further by the return of their former manager Eamonn Kelly.
The Tipp native gave just one season to Offaly before work commitments compelled him to stand down, before promptly taking over bitter rivals Laois. Just for some extra spice, coming off the back of a defeat to Kerry - who he also managed previously - makes this a must-win game. This, most certainly, is personal.
Kilkenny’s Paul Murphy under pressure from Jake Dillon during Waterford's victory last week at Nowlan Park. Image: ©INPHO/Ken Sutton
A quick word on Kilkenny who rearranged their pack in the defeat to Waterford. Brian Cody needed solutions at full-back and centre-back but he’s unlikely to be fully satisfied by what he’s seen. Padraig Walsh was safe at number three but, like JJ Delaney reverting there in the past, you lose a huge influence out the field.
Paul Murphy won four All Stars at corner-back but looked uncomfortable in the half-back line. He misplaced the ball with nine of 13 possessions, was blocked down on a couple of occasions, and gave away three very scorable frees for rash challenges. When you’re in the corner, you have the comfort of the endline and sideline as no player can tackle you from there, but it’s a different ball game at half-back where threats can come from 360 degrees. Clare aren’t hot fudge right now, so the Cats can bounce back.
Of course Waterford’s physical approach was so noticeable against Kilkenny and Stephen Daniels - a man who missed three years with a smashed kneecap - typified that, as five times he strongly came out of rucks with dirty ball. It could be a destruction derby with Tipp this weekend.